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A CurtainUp Review
The Belle of Belfast

It was more than a wee drink, Father. I tossed back three naggins and for no reason at all but to get bollocksed.— Emma

That's still not a sin.— Reilly

It's not?— Not unless you did kill or rape someone after. . . — Reilly
Feck... Should I have killed someone? — Emma
Patricia Conolly and Hamish Allan-Headley
(Photo: Bill Coyle)
God bless Patricia Conolly (and forgive her her trespasses). As Emma Malloy in The Belle of Belfast, the veteran stage actress is a joy in the confessional as she tries determinedly to come up with sins to confess to patient Father Ben Reilly (Hamish Allan-Headley). It takes all her powers of comprehension to digest that seeing someone steal something is not the same as stealing. She's the picture of innocence, although a vituperative remark sometimes creeps into her conversation, hinting at a layer of vitriol underneath her demure demeanor.

No matter, her interaction with her confessor in 1985 Belfast is classically comic. And she's perfectly attired by costume designer Terese Wadden in a dowdy coat and frumpy wool hat. Righteous Emma couldn't sin if she wanted to. As with all the characters in this promising but not completely satisfying play at the Irish Repertory Theatre, she's vividly drawn by playwright Nate Rufus Edelman. And Conolly makes the most of it.

Emma's great-niece Anne (Kate Lydic, giving a spirited performance) is a saucy wench with a schoolgirl crush on Father Reilly. She has no trouble coming up with sins, some manufactured, some real. She swears like a sailor, as does her friend Ciara (Arielle Hoffman), a wide-eyed urchin who'll never be charged with brilliance. Anne divulges her priestly passion to Ciara, who is duly shocked.

Meanwhile, we learn that Aunt Emma does double duty in the confessional by pouring out her would-be sins to the parish's second prelate, Father Behan (Billy Meleady). More seasoned than Father Reilly, with whom he shares the rectory, he's also more cynical and resigned. His favorite sacrament is whiskey. So how can Ben Reilly not seem pale in comparison to such a motley crew? Ably portrayed by Allan-Headley, he's a true believer, devout in his vocation, determined to shepherd his flock to righteousness and salvation. Not much chromatic, or dramatic, intensity there. But this man of God is still a man, susceptible to the charms of an attractive seventeen-year-old girl. He succumbs to Anne's advances. Despite his pious pronouncements, Reilly is wrestling with a crisis of faith. His dalliance with Anne brings his doubts to the surface.

Much of Edelman's play is devoted to Ben's struggle, which is a shame since there's little or no fire to it. We see that the priest is not happy but get no meaningful sense of the nuts and bolts of his internal conflict. We're told rather than shown. His verbal exchange with Anne, who's ready for a full-blown affair and willing to fight for it, livens things up a little but not enough. The priest thinks one coupling was one too many; he doesn't rise to her bait. He's full of earnest concern but not particularly dynamic. It takes two, after all, to tangle.

Director Claudia Weill delivers a handsome, well-paced production, allowing her actors free rein, which they all use wisely. John McDermott's set is simple but effective: two chairs for the confessional, a simple room with cheap furniture for the rectory, and a stoop surrounded by concrete for Ciara and Anne's tete-a-tete's. Justin Townsend's lighting is especially effective in creating the storm that throws Anne and Ben together.

Anne, the Belle of Belfast, is a force of nature. Just about nothing gets in her way, and if it does she simply goes around it. She's funny, fearless, and ready to take on anything. Ben, in contrast, is almost a caricature of a saintly if imperfect cleric, oozing forgiveness and faith. Edelman doesn't give him or his floundering beliefs dimension. All Father Reilly does is talk — too much.

The other characters all brim with life, even Father Behan drowning himself in drink and Emma, searching in vain for nonexistent sins. But, except for his intimacy with Anne, all Ben does is emit words.

The Belle of Belfast is well-structured, skillfully drawn, and slyly entertaining. If only it were less hollow: crack it open and there's not much there.

The Belle of Belfast by
Director: Claudia Weill
Cast: Patricia Conolly (Emma Malloy), Hamish Allan-Headley (Ben Reilly), Kate Lydic (Anne Malloy) Arielle Hoffman (Ciara Murphy), and Billy Meleady (Dermott Behan)
Set Design:  John McDermott
Costume Design: Terese Wadden
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Sound Design: Daniel Kluger
Projections: Jeff Larson
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Production Stage Manager: Christine Lemme
Running Time: 85 minutes
Irish Repertory Theatre at the DR2 Theatre (103 East 15th Street in Union Square)
From 04/15/15; opening 04/23/15; closing 06/07/15
Reviewed by Michael Bracken based on April19, 2015 performance
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