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The Smuggler

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - January 26, 2023

Michael Mellamphy
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Moral ambiguity seeps into, permeates, and ultimately overwhelms The Smuggler, Ronán Noone's intelligent little "thriller in rhyme" downstairs at Irish Rep. The one-hander, performed with such naturalness and relish by Michael Mellamphy that you'd swear he wrote it himself, confronts many unsettling current realities in its 85 minutes about class, crime, immigration, and compromised principles, and even affords some laughs along its unhappy way. Be warned, though: You'll be entertained, but you may exit wondering, "Yes, but how am I supposed to feel about these people?"

Mellamphy plays ten characters, but most of the time he's Tim Finnegan, a fortysomething Irish-American unhealthily self-conscious about his immigrant status as he tends bar at a welcoming little pub in Amity, Massachusetts (Ann Beyersdorfer's cozy set is lavish with detail, from the tambourines on the wall to the chalked draft beer list, including Dusty Rodent IPA, a name which will actually figure into the narrative.) A couple of tables are visible, populated by audience members, and if you're lucky you may even get Tim to serve you a mocktail. He juggles cocktail shakers and beer and whiskey bottles like an expert mixologist and, unlike most expert mixologists, samples an ample amount of his own product.

"Thriller in rhyme"? Noone's rhymes are, as in contemporary songwriting, approximate and falsely accented (missus/ambitious, am/AmeriCAN, bum/individualisUM), and for long stretches you may not hear them at all. Part of that may be Mellamphy's brogue, which runs toward the extreme. Unfortunate, because we know from his portrayals of the nine other Amity residents that he excels at dialect, and he might want to dial this one back a tad. No argument about the thriller part, though: It unfurls gradually, but when the thrills come, they pack a wallop. There's violence of various varieties and an ingenious final twist where the worst of that violence is engineered by someone you'd never suspect.

Tim runs in many directions. Ostensibly a writer, he hasn't written much–because, he explains, he's too exhausted from his part-time bartending gig to indulge in further storytelling at home. That home's a wreck of a shack, a pimple on the face of this well-to-do island, and his native-born wife wishes he'd work harder to get them out of it and into a more functional domicile, especially now that they have a young son.

So he unenthusiastically takes another job. It's supposed to be painting houses, but mostly it's chauffeuring the undocumented immigrants doing the actual painting. Concurrently, he learns from the friendly local bartender about a newly arrived millionaire, a "coyote" who smuggles those immigrants across the border and incurs high-interest debt from them. And that triggers an idea in Tim: These illegals, he knows where they live, when they're not home, and that they don't have bank accounts to shelter all the cash they're accumulating. Maybe he could rob them? And maybe, given that they're illegals, on the sliding scale of present-day morality, he wouldn't be committing that much of a crime?

He's doing it for his wife and kid, he rationalizes; and furthermore, though Tim doesn't say it, among the infusion of undesirables rushing up from the border, he's establishing his superior position in the immigrant hierarchy. The local us-versus-them dynamic is already fraught, a young Irish kid having recently killed himself while driving drunk and plowing down a Colombian worker, who's recuperating and will, Tim suspects, reap a bounty of insurance and workers' comp from it. Immigrants, he figures, they spoil everything. Oh, but not immigrants like me.

Meanwhile, Tim's marriage is kind of falling apart, while his environmentalist mother-in-law is making a spectacle of herself chaining herself to a sycamore tree, his married-cop brother-in-law is carrying on with an attractive illegal, and the friendly bartender is demanding a cut for assisting Tim's steal-from-the-poor scheme. Local politics intrude, too. It's a full plate, but the main dish is: How will Tim build up his self-respect, and how will his actions hurt others in the process?

As the need for money drives him to darker exploits, The Smuggler whips up an indictment-of-capitalism fury that borders on the Brechtian. The smuggling and exploitation of the border crossers gets a little lost in the flurry of subplots, but we never forget we're in a land where the dollar rules, and the pursuit of it triggers human conflicts that society will forgive, because in the long run they're good for business.

We like Tim, but we get uncomfortable with the moral compromises he's making to get what he wants. Would we make them? You may argue about his self-righteousness and self-justification all the way home–that's moral ambiguity for you. But you'll probably agree on the virtuosity of Mellamphy, who goes from charming to personable to menacing to offensive, and Irish to Brazilian to New England accents, on a dime. He interacts deftly with the audience, shuffling into the house and back, and looking you right in the eye, just like Tim would. Michael O'Connor's expressive lighting helps, as does Conor Bagley's fast-paced direction, as does Liam Bellman-Sharpe's sound design, with a heavy dose of Frank Sinatra: Tim likes the classics, and likes to sing hoarsely along.

Be sure to read Noone's program note, which tells of a border crosser whose coyote told her, just as she made it over, to lie down and close her eyes, because "when customs and border control survey the field they use flashlights and if your eyes are open the light reflects off them and that's how they find you and arrest you. I think the fact she was told she was safer with her eyes closed can be measured as a metaphor and an illustration of how we are dealing with immigration issues in America today."

There is much food for thought in The Smuggler, and much of it leaves a bitter taste. But you'll be glad you partook.

The Smuggler
Through February 26, 2023
Irish Repertory Theatre
W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: