Michael mellamphy carol rosegg rsz
Michael Mellamphy in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of the “The Smuggler," which has been extended through March 12. [Photo by Carol Rosegg

Need, greed in nation's gold rush

In fair weather times, the American is picturesque: honest, hardworking and merited; we love thy neighbor, united we stand. Yet when days become dire, where are the lines of our decency drawn, and whose moral borders are crossed in the name of preservation and pride? 

 This harbinger in the eye of the storm, and other stern scenarios, are the dredges of Irish Repertory Theatre’s latest production “The Smuggler,” written by Ronán Noone, directed by Conor Bagley, and starring Michael Mellamphy, in the W. Scott McLucas Studio through March 12.

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A seldom sight for off-Broadway, this one-act, one-actor production is staged entirely in verse, written in modern parlance for a contemporary audience. Tethering poetry and politics with folktale shanty, “The Smuggler” is a deceivingly dark elegy to the sellout of the Irish soul and the hypocritical underworld of U.S. immigration.

The story is set in the Nantucket-type town of Amity, Mass., at a seafaring Celt-clad bar (meticulously designed by Ann Beyersdorfer) in which audiences are seated, including a few tables that immigrant barman and aspiring writer Tim Finnegan actually serves his “patrons”—from a mock menu—a tipsy drink or three.  

The “smuggler” is something of a juggler of bottles (as Mellamphy plucks a feather or two out of his cap from his days at Ryan’s Daughter), entertaining his audience with a few bedazzling bartender’s tricks, conjuring an ambiance of the bon vivant, like a true publican, before diving into the gnarled reality of why we’re all here.

Shortly after the exposition, Tim sinks into the harsh truths of his American life: unemployment, no health insurance, a sordid apartment, his child’s mounting hospital debts, and a particular pressure to socially ascend, to not burden the system as an immigrant, or “W.T…white trash.”

Taking a job alongside migrant workers to make ends meet, he resents the American life he is promised but not granted, and faces the country’s hard fact, that no one buys you new laces when your bootstraps snap. When a notable local dies in a drunken crash and his house goes on the market, Tim needs capital for a life-changing investment. In a sink-or-swim decision, Tim resorts to the detestable, and steals a stash of cash from his undocumented coworkers. 

Though he is wracked by a guilty conscience, the temptation to effortlessly get ahead leads Tim to discover that the road to being an American is paved with debts bigger than he ever bargained for.

Mellamphy steals the show in a part perfectly framed for him, while navigating Noone’s more-than-meets-the-eye rhymes. With an exceptional and expressive command of verse, Mellamphy holds audiences hostage over 85 minutes, bending syllables, suspense and rules, through stories both gruesomely humorous and squeamishly real, while ensnaring his crowd as witting accomplices.

Through provocative pronunciation, Mellamphy plays out the politics of immigration and assimilation through speech itself, converting from the foreigner—“An-Meiriceán”—to the legitimate “Ameri-CAN,” capable of anything. Mellapmhy gives voice to other colorful characters, ranging from New England to Brazil, while seemingly stock, were convincingly caricatured.

What might first appear to discredit the performance is that Mellamphy, as Amity anti-hero Tim, is too amiable to be reviled when he recounts his unpardonable actions, which at key moments deters audiences from the drama's ethical dilemma. As a thriller that intends to expose the devious transgressions happening in suburban plain sight, this play's Wicklow Walter White has a heart a few sizes too big to be believed as a villain, when he really should be.

Between the actor's natural conviviality and the charming pattering of verse, Mellamphy's Tim is too likeable to be disliked, which if anything makes the play's subject matter that much more dangerous: it's easy to forgive evil when it's the neighbor next door.   

Portrayed in the form of seaside lore, Bagley's direction achieves the rare challenge of flicking a subtle spotlight onto a crime against national identity that is uncomfortably, distinctly American. Whether one turns a blind eye to Tim's wrongs or brandishes him a traitor will plant audiences in their own personal line in the sand.

In its own way, “The Smuggler” is a poetic parable for the racist history of the Irish in America, and how this condition has come to be: out of desperation and shame, the vulnerable abuse the vulnerable in this country’s cultural caste, to become the henchmen to exploitation and enterprise in our black contract with the land of opportunity. In a half-hearted remorse, those like Tim exchanged cash soaked in blood—their own and others—as a down payment on the hope of a greater generation. The twisted tale of American martyrdom.

In the modern fashion, we are told not to condemn, but in the aftermath of events that birthed the atrocities so many in America suffer, a light-handed forgiveness is a thing difficult to do.

The play floats on an ugly idea that, outside of ethnicity, anyone would and will do the same in a rat race for prosperity; that in this national gold rush, need and greed will have the final say. Yet with near-Shakespearean foreshadowing (with citations to Lady Macbeth), we are left to wonder how or when the stains of these American sins may be washed.

“The Smuggler” is encircled by a knock upon the door, and as Tim goes to answer it, we do not see who it is. The omen hangs heavy in the theatre’s air: is it the knock of opportunity, or of vengeance for Irish America; the knock of retribution? 

Are you willing to pay the price?

For tickets, visit irishrep.org.

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