by John Stoltenberg
The bar is open and there’s 100-proof theater on tap. It’s a stirring play about an Irish immigrant bartender, and it’s shaking up a classy new cocktail bar where only 30 patrons at a time can see it.
Solas Nua—the company renowned for importing to DC fresh artistic talent from Ireland—has staged The Smuggler, a monologue in verse by Ronán Noone, at the Allegory bar inside the new Eaton Hotel on K Street. The play is a storytelling solo performed by Artistic Director Rex Daugherty (who nimbly mixes craft cocktails for customers while doing so!). This has to be one of DC’s coolest site-specific shows ever (the program lists drink specials!). And on top of the kick of the spirited ambiance, Solas Nua’s The Smuggler is a spellbinding, up-close-and personal drama about the struggle for survival and self-worth of documented and undocumented immigrants in America today.
In the role of Tim Finnegan, a 42-year-old would-be writer trying to make ends meet by tending bar, Rex Daugherty grabs us from the get-go with his hale-fellow charm, Dubliner drawl, and urgency to be understood. Pacing restlessly back and forth in a black apron and jaunty hat, he regales us with his knotty tale, intently connecting eye-to-eye. Some are seated at the bar directly in front of him; others are mere yards away. His penetrating gaze and poetic performance beguile.
The story Tim tells takes place in a speakeasy on a WASP-centric island off the coast of Massachusetts. Tim, though now a U.S. citizen, cannot support his wife and infant son. That angers her. That pains him. “It’s a thin line between desperation and acting immorally,” Tim shares as we see him segue into illegality. At first it’s petty theft. Eventually he’s embroiled in a highly profitable but criminal smuggling scheme whereby immigrants are disappeared then reappeared in new lives.
The ending is happy…but it’s complicated.
Noone writes in an arresting style of free verse that sometimes rhymes, and in Daugherty’s deft delivery it plays on the ears with delight and surprise. Here, for instance, is one of Tim’s several digressions:
If you did a
Sure lack of education
Lack of resources
But make no mistake it’s
And it’s to someone’s benefit
To keep you down
Stripping you of your endurance
Till eventually you accept
That there is no such thing
You just have to keep
Stepping on each other
Increasing the disparity
I love how the words poverty, industry, temerity, equality, and disparity don’t just rhyme; they propel Tim’s point. The rest of Noone’s scintillating script is like that.
The story includes ten other characters—among them Tim’s wife and in-laws—each of which Daugherty portrays distinctly and precisely, without parody or a pause in momentum. Laley Lippard’s direction is a marvel of its own, particularly in Daugherty’s dramatic use of the space (at one point he leaves the bar and roams the room), his inspired use of potable props (watch as he punctuates his lines with mixology), and an emotional arc that modulates through multiple octaves of meaning. There’s listenable bar music by Matthew M. Nielson before and after. And—with no lighting instruments in sight—Marianne Meadows creates some of most subtly immersive lighting I have ever seen.
So raise a glass to Solas Nua’s The Smuggler. It’s a first-rate fusion of play, place, and player that those fortunate to get into will be reminiscing about over drinks years from now.
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.
The Smuggler plays through October 6, 2019, presented by Solas Nua performing at the Eaton DC / Allegory Cocktail Bar, 1201 K Street Northwest, Washington, DC (located on the first floor of the new Eaton Hotel, tucked away behind the Radical Library). Tickets are available online.