It’s Doubt meets Lolita in Nate Rufus Edleman's pontifical comedy The Belle of Belfast, currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Anne, a seventeen-year-old girl living in Belfast during the violent Troubles, falls in love with Ben, a dashing young(ish) priest. Initially he resists, but when Anne shows up at his parish soaked through from the rain and teary over her parent’s bombing death, Ben gives in to his carnal impulses, and hijinks ensue. Sort of.
If you’re looking for a show with more uses of the word ‘Fek’ per minute than anything else Off-Broadway, look no further. That said, Edelman’s play doesn’t soar to the heights of its literary predecessors. While the playfully vulgar repartee brings to mind a less bloodthirsty Martin McDonagh, Edelman’s play sufferers from an identity crisis. Just when you think Belfast is going to be an irreverent comedy, it drops the humor and becomes a meditation on religious violence. Just when you think it’s a meditation on religious violence, it drops the fervor and becomes a coming-of-age story. With only ninety minutes of runtime, entire scenes that feel unnecessary, and one too many sentimental Irish folksongs, Belle never quite picks up steam.
But it’s not for lack of trying. Director Claudia Weill crafts the scenes with pitch-perfect intensity. She directs the play with the violent passion and morose nihilism needed to capture the essence The Troubles. The cast is fantastic, despite the characters’ tendency towards one-notedness. Billy Meleday gives a standout performances as Dermott, an old, impassioned priest with a hatred of protestants and an unquenchable thirst for whiskey. Arielle Hoffman gives an endearing portrait of Ciara, Anne’s timid best friend who endures Anne’s chiding because Anne’s the only one who seems to notice her.
The Belle of Belfast Hammish Allan-Headley and Kate Lydic are effortlessly believable as Ben and Anne, but they don’t have the right chemistry as the star-crossed lovers. There’s something about their romance that feels particularly out of place. For all the taboo-breaking fun of their relationship, they’re missing that hot-and-bothered quality. It’s almost as if sleeping with Anne is just another one of Father Ben’s many acts of charity.
And in the end, it’s all a bit too easy. Anne gets what she wants from Ben, but doesn’t fight very hard to keep him. Ben has a moment of weakness with Anne, but he’s far too resolute to even contemplate giving anything up for her. Although it’s a great bit of fun at the beginning, ultimately The Belle of Belfast can’t make us give a fek.
Written by Nate Rufus Edleman
Directed by Claudia Weill
Featuring: Hamish Allan-Headley, Patricia Conolly, Arielle Hoffman, Kate Lydic, and Billy Meleady
Scenic Design John McDermott, Costume Design Terese Wadden, Lighting Design Justin Townsend, Sound Design Daniel Kluger, Projections Jeff Larson, Fight Director Rick Sordelet, Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis, Production Stage Manager, Christine Lemme, Assistant Stage Manager Rebecca C. Monroe Production Photos by Carol Rosegg.