‘Belle’ subverts comedic narrative with surprises

Kate Lydic and Arielle Hoffman in a scene from “The Belle of Belfast.”

Review by Sean Williams

The Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Belle of Belfast” has been extended for an additional week, and for good reason. Nate Rufus Edelman’s play is a fast-paced work with comedic charisma and a riveting setting. Working against the backdrop of Belfast in 1985, the show examines the inexorable pull that desire—whether it is escape from Northern Ireland, lust, or Jameson—has on the main characters.

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The cast is led by protagonist Anne Malloy, (played by Kate Lydic) a 17-year-old wayward orphan whose interest in priest Ben Reilly (Hamish Allan-Headley) might be more than mere infatuation. Lydic does a great job of nailing the expressions and tone of a seemingly overconfident adolescent who is desperately trying to make sense of growing up without a family in a war-torn city. Anne’s interactions with Father Reilly and her best friend Ciara Murphy (Arielle Hoffman) establish a carefree exposition of the story, filled with bawdy jokes and observations about Catholic/Protestant rivalries in the time of the Troubles. But Edelman and director Claudia Weill turn what seems to be a conventional comedic narrative on its head as the story progresses and we learn more about each of the characters.

The stage is small but there’s plenty to look at, with a set that creates the dichotomy of a chaste rectory compared to the seedy and graffiti-riddled streets of Belfast. A projector flashes pictures taken during the Troubles on a wall to begin the play, and there is a consistently ominous background that pervades through the duration of the show.

Each scene in the play incorporates two cast members in a dialogue, and as such the story takes a while to unfold. Edelman succeeds wonderfully at using a funny introduction between a gossiping old woman (Patricia Conolly) and an impatient Father Reilly in confession to establish a setting and flesh out the characters. By the time the play hits its raucous midpoint, we think we have a good idea of what’s coming next. However, “The Belle of Belfast” again breaks from a typical narrative and offers up surprise after surprise, sometimes coming seconds apart.

Billy Meleady and Conolly fill out the remaining cast members as Father Dermott Behan and Emma Malloy, Anne’s great-aunt, respectively. Meleady in particular delivers a show-stealing performance as an alcoholic, nationalist priest who is capable of conjuring up hilarious quips and horrifying fury. His one-liners are what really get the show moving, and his brief time on stage is consistently riveting while Emma’s scenes in the confessional cement her irritating yet lovable persona.

Each of the actors does well when it comes to addressing his or her character’s insecurities. Hoffman’s performance as Ciara, an overweight, self-conscious girl who timidly daydreams about boys, is one of the most personal in the show. Father Reilly, while a relatively bland character compared to his colorful counterparts, also must struggle with his doubts about religion and his devotedness to God. Though the cast is small at just five, each actor seems very comfortable with his or her character, and that confidence shows on stage during any of the dialogue. Part of this is due to Edelman’s rapid interactive sequences, but the performers must also be commended on a good job of tackling the difficult Belfast accent while transitioning through an enormous range of emotions.

Overall the play succeeds at subverting expectations and constantly keeping the audience on its toes. There are several laugh-out-loud moments and a healthy dosage of pathos, while the small theatre offers intimate closeness to the stage. The Irish Rep’s production of “The Belle of Belfast” is an earnest interpretation of a dynamic and exciting play.

“The Belle of Belfast” can be seen at the DR2 Theatre in Manhattan through June 14.