By Allyce Morrissey
It seems simple – a stage set by a stack of three beer cases, one lighting cue, one actor, a couple of beers. But the simplicity of Ronán Noone’s “The Smuggler” ends with its set. The Irish-born writer’s play boasts “9,000 words in rhyme” and holds true to its promise. Mr. Noone’s text is both intricate and direct. Its vivid metaphors are juxtaposed with crass quips. The lines that take some thinking to unravel pay off, and the rhymes that are a stretch aren’t pretending to be otherwise.
Michael Mellamphy’s performance as Tim, a former bartender and aspiring writer, is intoxicating – not only because he swigs several beers during the play’s 65-minute run time. With only the beer cases to serve as his scene partner and set, Mr. Mellamphy single-handedly brings Mr. Noone’s morally corrupt world to life. He takes us to bars and basements, through rat attacks and environmental sit-ins, as his character becomes a housepainter and then a smuggler. And he does it all with enough humor and charm that the audience isn’t completely repulsed by a man who eventually steals, murders, and extorts vulnerable people. Ultimately, Mr. Mellamphy’s Tim takes us deep into the fallacy of the American Dream.
This seems to be at the heart of Mr. Noone’s intention, and he is not the first to endeavour to prove what many American teens learn by reading “Death of a Salesman” – not only is the American Dream dead, it never existed. Early on in the play, Tim recites the three revelations of an immigrant who came to America believing its streets were paved with gold: “One, the streets of America were not paved with gold. Two, the streets of America were not paved at all. And three, I had to pave them.”
An Irish immigrant who obtained American citizenship, Tim finds an unusual series of opportunities to make a better life for himself and his family, after he loses his bartending job. First, he paints houses alongside other immigrants, many of whom are undocumented. Second, he robs the homes of those colleagues whose immigration status means they keep stashes of cash at home (and won’t risk reporting the crime to the police). And finally, he robs and kills a smuggler, thereby taking over the business of smuggling other immigrants into the country – and then extorting them for 25% of the wages they’re able to earn.
Who else, he says, will Americans get to paint their houses or perform the myriad other tasks “real” Americans don’t want to do? Tim gives immigrants the chance for a better life and makes a profit doing it – until his immigrant sister-in-law blackmails him for a percentage. Extortion of the extortioner. What’s more American than that?
Mr. Noone’s play is a fascinating psychological study and an impressive vehicle for an actor, but it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly he wants to tell us that we don’t already know about corruption in America. Tim ultimately gets his real big break selling the story of his questionable pursuits to a publisher. Perhaps what Mr. Noone is saying that the stories we tell and listen to often matter more than what we do. I’ll drink to that.
Performed by Mick Mellamphy
Directed by David Sullivan
Written by Ronan Noone
October 6 at 7:30 PM
Photo credit: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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ALLYCE MORRISSEY is a dramaturg based in New York City. She holds an MA in Dramaturgy and Writing for Performance from Goldsmiths, University of London, and a BA in English from Villanova University. She also works in entertainment advertising.