By Stanford Friedman
Before down-on-his-luck Tim Finnegan (Michael Mellamphy) becomes The Smuggler in Ronán Noone’s brutally clever one-hander, he is something of a juggler. Not only does he possess a veteran bartender’s skill of tossing liquor bottles over his shoulder then behind his back, and setting cocktail shakers atwirl, he also has the ability to spin multiple stories at once while assuming the guise of ten secondary characters, each flying through the dark atmosphere of his woeful and sometimes violent tale. Mellamphy’s assured, charismatic performance, and clear gift of gab, makes Tim an engaging and all too relatable anti-hero who finds his way to success via a series of questionably justified crimes and misdemeanors. Noone’s dialog, all in rhyme, sets a gripping pace and creates the appropriate emotional distance between actor and audience; akin to the space between your barstool at an Irish pub, and the ominous drunk who is blocking the door.
Tim’s first words to the audience, “I am/An Amerikan/I may not sound like it/But I am,” is a reference to his Irish accent and his status as an immigrant who has gained citizenship. By the time he repeats the phrase in the play’s final moments, it has taken on a bleak new perspective, that becoming a successful American means, “You do what you need to do/To become what you want to be.” In Tim’s case, having lost his job as a bartender and with a wife and infant to support, he goes to work as a day laborer alongside illegal immigrants who have been smuggled into town. Before long, his need to provide food and comfort to his family outweighs his moral code and one bit of robbery leads to more dire escapades.
Noone’s poetry is not the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare (though Lady Macbeth does get a shout-out when Tim’s wife breaks bad) nor is it street rap. It’s the kind of easily accessible patter that allows Mellamphy to transform into, say, Tim’s bellicose in-law, Jack, or scheming femme fatale Daniella, with ease, while still keeping Tim at the center of the proceedings.
The play is set on the affluent east coast island of Amity. You won’t find it on Google Maps, but if it sounds familiar that’s because it is also the setting for Peter Benchley’s Jaws. Understood to be a stand-in for Martha’s Vineyard, it’s a wink to a locale the playwright knows well, and a genre he handles with aplomb. While there are no shark attacks here, Tim does fight it out with a sharp-toothed rodent in a scene as terrifying as any horror movie. Director Conor Bagley stages the encounter in almost complete darkness with Mellamphy moving through the audience in a panic. By scene’s end he is literally bathed in sweat.
This Amity is also one that is struggling with its immigrant population in ways that resonate and sting. As Tim’s bartender pal tells him in a confidential aside, “I’m not a racist, although I got some cultural insensitivity.” It’s just the kind of atmosphere where victimization is ignored in the pursuit of wealth or explained away with false sympathies.
Noone won the Best Playwright Award for The Smuggler at Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Festival in 2019 but a scheduled 2020 production fell victim to the pandemic. Now, it’s back with a vengeance in a month-long run at the Irish Rep. Scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer has transformed the intimate basement theater into a most realistic pub with large chalkboard beer menus that offer coded references to the play’s various characters, and on-stage tables where lucky audience members might be given a mocktail. Be advised, the drinks, and also the plot, are served with a twist.
The Smuggler: A Thriller in Rhyme – By Ronán Noone, directed by Conor Bagley.
WITH: Michael Mellamphy.
Scenic design by Ann Beyersdorfer, lighting design by Michael O’Connor and sound design by Liam Bellman-Sharpe. Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., 212.727.2737, https://irishrep.org/show/2022-2023-season/the-smuggler-2/. Through February 26. Running time: 85 minutes