Pop culture references are rarely as cruel as those in “Pumpgirl,” a bleak drama from Irish newcomer Abbie Spallen. All three characters in this interweaving series of monologues are essentially prospect-free, but as they slog through their working-class lives, they keep talking about movies, rock music and celebrities. An ex-con is nicknamed Shawshank, for instance, and while a woman is sexually assaulted, her mind drifts to “Finding Nemo.” That constant fantasy — heightened by Manhattan Theater Club’s graceful production — clarifies how hard these characters will work to ignore the truth.
But hopelessness doesn’t make these people zombies. Spallen crafts her characters with obvious affection, giving each a vivid inner life.
Take the nameless pumpgirl (Hannah Cabell), a sensitive tomboy who works at a gas station. She tries to win male approval by making lewd jokes about other women, but she’s also desperate to be accepted by someone who won’t mock her masculinity. That’s why she latches on to Hammy (Paul Sparks) — a married stock car racer who occasionally sleeps with her — and why her eventual, drastic reaction to his family makes so much sense.
As clear as they are, though, the pumpgirl’s choices are not predictable, and Hammy and his sarcastic wife Sinead (Geraldine Hughes) are just as surprising. It may be apparent that something bad will happen to them, but it’s never obvious what it will be.
Spallen’s language matches her elegant plotting. She writes in slangy Irish prose that makes room for beautiful images, so her characters sound like real people who just happen to understand metaphor.
Ultimately, her script — which shared this year’s Susan Smith Blackburn Award — provides the pleasure of a good short story. And it’s easy to make that comparison, since “Pumpgirl” is just three long speeches spliced together. These people talk only to us and never to each other, so we might get as much from the play by reading it.
But director Carolyn Cantor does inject some theater into the storytelling.
For one, she draws unified performances from the cast. All three actors begin with a casual energy, as though the characters are amused by their own bad luck. Sparks thunders like he’s king of the local bar, Cabell talks like a kid who wants to make her older brother laugh, and Hughes gets bitter pleasure out of hating her marriage. Each is distinct and likeable.
As they barrel forward, though, getting closer to the dark hearts of their stories, the thesps find a dangerous despair. Their emotions get raw, and Cantor lets them move more freely about the stage. Slowly and effectively, the production depicts a loss of control.
The helmer’s cohesive work also highlights a major irony: Each character knows something crucial that the others don’t, yet that knowledge doesn’t set anyone free. A little detail here or there doesn’t change the fact that everyone is essentially the same. Everyone is headed toward the same sort of fate.
Designer David Korins enhances that statement with his metaphoric set. The cast stands on a transparent platform hovering several feet above a field of yellow wildflowers. Though the characters can see something beautiful, they can’t possibly touch it.