BWW Review: THE SMUGGLER at Solas Nua At The Eaton DC
Pull up a bar stool. The Irish barkeep has a little story to tell you.
The saga of "The Smuggler," a new prize-winning play by Ronán Noone, couldn't have a more authentic setting than the gently curved eight-seat wooden bar in the speakeasy-like Allegory Bar at the Eaton Hotel downtown. That's where the Irish arts collective Solas Nua has ingeniously set the one man play.
Eye contact is big and actor Rex Daughtery, also the artistic director for Solas Nua, has time in the 70 minute monologue to lock eyes with everyone in the room, whether it's at the bar, where you can't quite avoid him, or in the nearby rows behind. Capacity is only 30.
He also nods, jokes, mixes drinks and prowls the audience as the narrative requires. And it is quite a narrative - a tale of immigrants old and new, of struggle, of moral quandaries and crime (as the title may hint) and a whole lot of humor.
With immigration the prevailing issue outside the walls of the D.C. bar, there's an immediacy and urgency to the tale, which, if written in another form, might make a sprawling Hollywood movie with its crime, sex, chases and animal showdowns.
But this form is quite different - entirely in verse! As if to connect to epic poems of Irish literary history, Noone, an Irishman who now teaches at Boston University, has fashioned a one-man play entirely in rhyme. And while this does not at first seem entirely necessary, it does have its charms, with the cadences and the expectation of the coming rhyming word at the end of each stanza. At one point, the coming rhyme is so obvious the barroom crowd says it for him.
Hearing a crime tale in the kind of cadence you'd hear in "Twas the Night Before Christmas" doesn't always work. Sometimes there's a ill-fitting word or phrase chosen only for the rhyme. Other times the brogue alters what may look like a rhyme on the page to something else out loud. And it's never bad when the narrative moves so far from the cadences that all the business of the rhyming is subsumed into the monologue.
Mostly, Daughterty presents a character who is so charming, spirited and dangerous you're always thinking of him and not the meter of what he's saying. More than a splendid presentation of his character, Daugherty also adds the surprising and complicated choreography of the bartender's mixology.
Over the course of the night, he mixes a half dozen or more of the two drink specials for those at the front bar - an Old Fashioned-like Tipperary and a gin and juice concoction called the Bee's Knees. But he does so by pouring his liquor, chopping his ice, vigorously shaking his shaker, or slicing his twist of lemon completely in time with what he's saying.
Each movement - grabbing a glass, slamming the refrigerator door - seems to align with the drama of what he's saying. And how is this accomplished? Does he know what people are ordering beforehand?
Whatever the choice, it's all ingeniously incorporated into the monologue - even the billing, because yes, the drinks each cost $13, going rate at DC hotels.
At first it seems like the theater company and director Laley Lippard lucked out with a readymade setting with flat lighting and sound that is disturbed (accurately nonetheless) by the noisy motors of the icebox. But Marianne Meadows' lighting design is more subtle than that; when Daugherty's barkeep is at a devilish crossroads, he's suddenly bathed in more red light than the nearby Exit sign could provide. Later, when it comes to the sinister conclusion, there's some grim under lighting to drive the point.
Likewise Matthew M. Neilson's sound design includes some music that comes up at the end that, with the raised lights, seems to indicate the epilogue if not last call.
With its timely story and singular, authentic presentation, "The Smuggler" is an arresting and memorable night of theater in the most perfect of settings, raising the bar for site-specific theater going forward.
Running time: About 70 minutes, no intermission.
Photo credit: Rex Daugherty in "The Smuggler." Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
"The Smuggler" runs through Oct. 6 at Eaton DC / Allegory Bar, 1201 K St NW. Tickets online.