By Stuart Miller . . . 

To write a play in verse can be both a blessing and a curse. 
When it goes well you’ll seem clever, but the gimmick can also make things worse. 
Ronàn Noone’s The Smuggler—A Thriller in Rhyme at Irish Rep pulls it off much of the time,
But there are also moments where you’d wish he’d skip the rhyme. 
Okay, that’s enough. Noone is much better at this than me and he has a story he wants you to see. 
Wow, it is tough to stop once you get going. But I’m done. Rest assured.

This sort of conversational, almost conspiratorial tone is at the heart of this one-man show, as Tim Finnegan tells us the tale of how he broke bad, luring us in with his charm before making us complicit in his schemes that are a warped, but realistic vision of the American Dream: get ahead by exploiting those beneath you. 

Michael Mellamphy

Tim, an Irish immigrant armed with a green card that puts him above the illegal immigrants working throughout Amity, the summer colony in Massachusetts where he had been working in a bar before it closed. This production, well directed by Conor Bagley (despite a false note at the very end), is set in a bar, and Tim—as played by a winning Michael Mellamphy—flaunts his skill at making drinks, flipping bottles with a casual flair. 

Once the bar closes, Tim’s life, already a struggle, takes a nosedive. His wife, Tina, is frustrated by their dump of a home and frets about the future for their baby Eddie. Her parents already look down on Tim, but now see him as little more than an immigrant mooching off America. (There’s a subplot—in which Tim’s mother-in-law chains herself to a sycamore tree to protect it from developers—that falls flat each time it crops up.) 

The show is filled with characters, and Mellamphy strives to bring them all to life. It works better when he plays his brother-in-law, Jack the cop, than when he’s trying to embody Tina. If he were really just telling us this tale in a bar, he’d probably tell us what Tina said, without acting it out (in verse, remember). 

Desperate, Tim turns to a life of crime, but as Walter White loved to say, Tim is doing it just for his family. And while Tim never dons a porkpie hat, he too is actually enamored with his new daring, get-it-done persona. Tim targets illegal immigrants because he knows they won’t complain especially when the locals have lately been making MAGA-like noises about the people who do all the hard work for them. 

While the verse format is less effective in serious moments—forcing sentences into specific rhythms undermines the emotions of a scene when Eddie gets rushed to the hospital—Tim (and Mellamphy) use it like a weapon to lighten the moral complications of his bad behavior. 

Michael Mellamphy

The writing is also especially sharp in the comic moments, including the play’s highlight, when Tim goes to rob a house but his attempts to pilfer the safe in the basement are endangered by a giant rat.

“And I think this is something

 Out of Greek mythology

 His teeth shining 

Eyes red with fury

 And he looks like he’s

 About to leap at me 

And then he starts making 

This rolling dark sound 


Like Cerberus at the gates Of Hell”

The two engage in a ferocious battle, with the rat biting Tim until he chokes the rodent so hard his eyes explode out of his head.  Seemingly dead, the super vermin rouses itself one last time.

“When suddenly His mouth widens 

And he smiles as if he’s winking at me 

Which he couldn’t do Because his eyes are on the ground Like squished meatballs in a stew 

But I imagine

It’s him acknowledging 

Respect for the battle 

And then I hear It 

The last gurgling 

Sounds of his Death rattle”

Scenes like that and Mellamphy’s performance carry the story along as Tim’s moral compass goes ever further askew. 

Tim justifies his violence and even the smuggling and exploitation of more illegals for his own personal profit, pointing out that we—his fellow Americans—can’t really complain, can we, when we reap the benefits of all that cheap labor. The points he makes at the end would have been more effective had they been woven in throughout the play but they still pack a punch.

“Everywhere opportunity knocks,” he says, with a wink at us, and all he’s doing is being a good American and seizing it. 

The Smuggler. Through February 26 at Irish Rep (132 West 22nd Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues) 80 minutes with no intermission. 

Photos – Carol Rosegg