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‘Pumpgirl’ Playwright Abbie Spallen Explains the Difference Between Theater and Burger King

Courtesy of Abbie Spallen

Debuting at last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Abbie Spallen's Pumpgirl had critics hailing the Irish playwright's sharp command of language. Following a well-received run in London, the show — the tragic tale of a gas-station attendant, a race-car driver, and his neglected wife living in the Irish borderlands — opens Off Broadway tonight from the Manhattan Theater Club. Spallen spoke to Vulture about Irish humor and tradition, her first time in New York, and how her play differs from fast food.

I read that the play was inspired by your own experience driving through a pump station.
I wouldn't really say that it was inspired by that, but it was just that somebody came out to serve gas in the car and the person that did that was like a character. I just thought there was one of those people in every town. I thought it would be nice to write a story around somebody like that, somebody that's sort of marginalized and on the edges of society in a way. I'm interested in people that are more forgotten, people that sort of exist on the peripheries.

The play is pretty intense — there's a broken marriage and a rape. What was the writing process like?
It was a dark place to go into. I don't particularly think that I write theater, per se; I think I'm more interested in writing drama. And if I think that if you go back to the way theater should be used in accordance with what the Greeks would have used it for, it's a healing process, and it's a question of going into those places and exploring them.

There are a lot of dark scenes, but at the same time, there are some pretty funny lines. Do you have a generally dark sense of humor?
I think it's just an Irish sense of humor. Life's pretty dark, but it's also pretty funny. To me, there's no point in writing something if it doesn't try to address something in our humanity. Otherwise I'm just a person who writes words on a page.

Do you think any of the humor gets lost in translation, that only an Irish audience would get?
Yeah, we took out a few — my personal term for them is "tumbleweed lines," where it's just not coming through. And then there are other lines that people really get. But I'm not about to change it and put like a Starbucks on every fourth page. My number-one thing is that it's not Burger King: You can't have it your way. It has to be the way it is. People really have to tolerate the fact that it's from a different country, and it's in a different dialect.

Since this was your first trip to New York, did you see any other shows while you were here?
I saw Adam Rapp's show, American Sligo. I love his writing. He doesn't write for critics or any of that rubbish. It was fantastic to see Paul [Sparks, who plays Hammy in Pumpgirl]. I remember thinking, Oh, my God, he's in my play! I've got him in my play!

You're an actress as well. Did you ever think about playing one of the roles yourself?
I don't like to mix the two. I don't think it works for the director if you've got this pain-in-the-ass writer in the room all the time. As an actor I want to discover what a character's all about, but if I go in knowing what the character's about, I'm basically just standing up there saying lines.

What's it like for you as the playwright watching your own shows?
Well, Pumpgirl's literally only my second play, so I'm talking from quite a limited experience here. It's more nerve-racking than anything I've ever been through. If something goes wrong, you just don't want to see that slow-motion horror coming across my face. I sort of nurse a gin-and-tonic in the bar.
—Lori Fradkin