The Smuggler – A Thriller in Rhyme
First, let me clear up hesitation based on verse. This play syncs rather than strictly rhymes and does so in a manner one is only made aware of by vocal emphasis. In other words, it’s neither high falutin’ nor off putting because of format.
These days, theater overflows with immigrant stories elucidating danger, hardship, deception, separation, and assimilation or lack of it. The dreadful situation has been explored from the point of view of Dreamers, illegal aliens, and citizen relatives. Narrative is, in my experience, universally sympathetic. Playwright Ronan Noone attempts to offer a different point of view, that of a foreigner who without much compunction crosses moral and legal lines ostensibly in order to take care of his family.
Ann Beyersdorfer’s evocative immersive set places us at an Irish bar in Amity, off the coast of Cape Cod. It’s summer. Walls are filled with oars, anchors, ship models, an old dart board, photos, maps, the American flag; a chalkboard of specials: Applejack Cider and Not Your Mama’s Root Beer…and one listing Craft Beers, not by price, but rather alcohol content. (Keep a peripheral eye on winking board changes.)
Dublin born immigrant Tim Finnegan (Michael Mellamphy) amiably greets and makes drinks for audience at two front tables. Juggling bottles with the finesse of experts in the film Cocktail, he sings along with Sinatra on the radio. One can’t help but relax. “Oh, I am an AmeriKAN,” (and citizen), Tim begins sitting on the bar. He may be that, but Irish lilt and storytelling ability speak of home. There’s no fourth wall. Tim looks at and speaks to us, rolling with reactions. He’s quick on his feet. “Keep chattin’ away folks, just makin’ a couple of drinks.”
The protagonist is broke. Wife Tina and sick, two year-old Eddie, live with him in what sounds like a shack. Bartending is irregular. His in-laws think him a bum. A house comes on the market at reduced price. Tina dreams aloud. Tim is frustrated, humiliated, angry. One night fellow bartender Jimmy points out a Brazilian who runs a painting business. Desperate, Tim takes a job chauffeuring undocumented workers to sites. “What’s this doin’ to my dignity?” he complains. The aliens arrive by way of a well-heeled, local coyote who smuggles them in. He’s making a mint.
Jimmy tips Tim off as to where the workers are housed. These people can’t use banks. Everything is on-premises cash. They can’t go to the cops. Nudge, nudge, they’re ripe for the picking. He expects a percentage, of course. Tim doesn’t hesitate and finds a great deal of cash. “Unscrew the socket plate/Hide it in the walls/That becomes your bank/For deposits and withdrawals.” At first, he swears it’s a one time thing, but “…Inside I see criminality/Has given me back my dignity.” There’s the house to consider. He briefly compares himself to Robin Hood. As Karl Marx said, “…to each according to his need.”
There are peripheral pieces to the jigsaw of what becomes a thriller: a car crash that involves a turbaned (immigrant) driver, a mother-in-law who chains herself to an endangered tree (comic relief), a cop/ brother-in-law having an affair, peer betrayal, threats, Tina’s decision when she finds out some of what Tim’s been about. On a second foray, he encounters an enormous, feral rat in the basement. Their battle is a highpoint. The actor conjures the rodent as he speaks, barely fending him off. A Stephen King parenthesis. Several murders are committed.
Michael Mellamphy is thoroughly appealing. He creates intimacy as if at a campfire. Fluidly moving around the set and into the bar/audience or conducting small business, the actor is completely natural. He sees us. There’s a twinkle in his eye and a sense of getting away with it that makes the character aptly discomfiting. Vocal rhythm serves the piece with skill.
Director Conor Bagley ably uses the room. Pacing is terrific. Mellamphy plays every part with distinctive voices and gestures, yet though we’re in New England, none of them have the accent.
Ronán Noone’s play: Crimes are committed with alacrity not balanced by any extreme situation/ experience that would believably provoke Tim to act the way he does. Alternatives don’t seem to have been explored. Any issue of haves and have-nots is moot when measuring poor and poorer immigrants. This is a missed opportunity. Moral quandaries must rise frequently with those in untenable situations far from home. The Smuggler accordions with too much going on towards the end. Still, it’s entertaining, its star captivating.
The Smuggler won the 2019 best playwright award at New York’s 1st Irish Festival.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
The Smuggler – A Thriller in Rhyme by Ronan Noone
Directed by Conor Bagley
Starring Michael Mellamphy
Through February 26, 2023
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Also at Irish Rep:
Endgame By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly
With Bill Irwin, John Douglas Thompson, Joe Grifasi, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes
January 25 – March 12, 2023