‘The Smuggler,’ A Thriller in Rhyme at Irish Repertory Theatre
In an energetic, boisterous performance delivered with a fever pitch that doesn’t quit or pause with quieter notes, Michael Mellamphy’s Tim Finnegan spills out The Smuggler, a story about how, as a naturalized citizen from Ireland, he was forced into a black-hearted situation he couldn’t refuse. In his delivery Mellamphy is like a high-speed train barreling down the track on a joy ride that threatens catastrophe at each turn in the journey, as customers and audience members alike are drawn in with his humor, excitement and storytelling verve, unfolding in rhyming couplets, that at times are insecure and slant. Written by Ronán Noone, himself an Irish-American immigrant from Galway, and directed by Conor Bagley, The Smuggler runs a slim 80 minutes at Irish Repertory Theatre in the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre. It has been extended until March 12.
At the heart of The Smuggler the protagonist (a con artist) attempts to get over with his charm and engagement to elicit audience sympathy. He seeks this as he tells about his plight to make a way for himself and his family in a culture that is the antithesis of welcoming and helpful to those “down on their luck.” When he’s fired from his job as a barman in Amity, Massachusetts, every door appears to shut in Finnegan’s face. Understanding the dark irony that America is portrayed as the land of “opportunity” in the alluring myth (the streets are paved with gold) told to strangers from other shores to entice them to leave their home country to provide cheap labor whether legal or illegal, he is caught in a morass of financial wrack and ruin of his own making.
Not only does Finnegan enjoy “a bit of drink” (an explanation for the selection of his job as barman) he appears not to be too swift in forward planning financially with his wife. Everything is a surprise that happens to them, not that they are responsible for selecting actions that leave them hanging off a cliff.
Many immigrants face hellish experiences, exploited by craven, greedy bosses, forced to live in overcrowded quarters, the pawns of merciless overlords wherever they turn. We have only to read about the history of America’s labor movement or Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers, or superlative, recent, non-fiction works (Tomato) to understand the desperation that immigrants go through, first to leave their countries, and then to attempt to “make it,” continuing the hell of the past in the present new “home.”
Thus, life moves from wheel to woe for those like Finnegan, who strike out to start a family, make missteps with bad choices, then fall on hard times. Finnegan and his wife live in a rental, that is no more than a shack with non-functioning plumbing. It is owned by a slumlord, a sleazy landlord who refuses to fix much of anything. As Finnegan unravels his dire circumstances with heavy poetic description, we identify with the immigrant experience, recognizing that the uniform abuse by those happy to mistreat and exploit the cheap labor of aliens and immigrants, is all too familiar.
What makes Finnegan’s experience a bit more interesting is how at each turn, being backed into a corner, by his boss, the landlord and the wife, he seeks a way to improve his family circumstances by “any” means necessary. Of course there’s the rub. “Any” reverts to lowering standards and morals he may have as a human being, as he turns to a life of theft and exploitation of other aliens and immigrants, he works with at his construction job.
Noone characterizes Finnegan during his monologue confessional with an emphasis on masculine bravado, fearlessness (especially when he confronts a menacing, “man-eating” rat) and chivalry in saving his wife and child from poverty, destitution and want. The heroic portrait is right out of “Captain America,” part of the glorious beauty of the American Dream of success, which lifts up the “heroic struggle” and vitiates the criminality, exploitation and violence that under-girds it. A good scam artist, Finnegan seductively blinds the audience to see things “his way,” so that they accept his justifications for his choices. His “bravery” and good will serves him like a magician’s prestidigitation at redirecting our understanding away from his conning nature.
Because his storytelling appears authentic and forthright, we gloss over his lack of accountability and responsibility in taking the low road toward crime, which he admits with (feigned?) abashment. Though he selects the exploitative way that harms and abuses others, we look at his efforts to succeed materially, not the dark side which he uses to get his “ill-gotten gains.” Finnegan’s “happy-go-lucky” attitude indicates that he knows the difference, but makes excuses for his behavior: “what else could he do?” The conclusion reinforces his triumph at “getting over.” The knock at the door, which we may anticipate brings recompense and punishment, never comes. Instead, the knock at the door brings a blessing. (There is no spoiler alert. You’ll just have to see The Smuggler to understand the symbolism of the knock on the door of the bar he was fired from, that his life of crime enabled him to buy back later on.)
Thus, Finnegan’s ultimate success as an Irish American is in how well he has gotten over, gotten the loot, made a beautiful material life for himself and his family, so they can “live happily ever after.” That there is some danger that lurks behind the triumphant Finnegan brand is smothered over by his intrepid nature and gumption to “just do it!” His is a male Cinderella story of achieving wealth. His macho actions to sacrifice for “the wife and family” actually reference the Trumps and Putins of the world and ridicule those who amass little monetarily, but scrape enough to get by, living in humility, honesty and decency. With boldness, his bravado encourages criminality and uplifts the fact that the law (represented by his adulterous cop brother-m-law) is capricious, unequally meted out and dysfunctional. Dali Lama, an unqualified loser, you have no place in America with your muted, unmaterialistic, nice-guy values
Rather than to evolve with hard work, sobriety, education and an ethos that undermines the exploitation of the abusive system that enslaves its workers and has converted Finnegan into a criminal, Finnegan jumps right in and embraces the “opportunity” to be at the top of the heap as “King Rat.” The symbolism of his killing the rat “guarding” a safe in the basement, whose contents he takes, is quite apparent. Ultimately, if justice ever knocks at Finnegan’s door, then he will have effected his own final self-destruction. Maybe! However, with his glib rhyming he proves to himself that there is nothing he can’t accomplish to become a success and be the type of “American” that extols scammers, con artists, schemers and material wealth, regardless of the soul damage and foulness created in the process. If he needs to, Finnegan has proven he’s a survivor. He can even get over in prison, if need be.
Clearly, Finnegan is smuggling more than a few ideas past the audience to justify his successful existence as proof of his greatness. The irony of themes and the well-written characterization acted by by Mellamphy and enhanced by the director’s vision is one more blow to smash the myths we may use to live by, as we dupe ourselves about America as a great nation. Clearly, it is fabulous for billionaires. For the immigrants who exploit and shred each other as the bosses divide and conquer them and us, it’s another America entirely. That Finnegan’s survival is cast in monetary terms aided and abetted to by his wife is his chief tragedy. But “what else can he do?” It’s the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” sung at every sports event nationwide.
Thanks to the creative team’s execution of set design which is just superb (Ann Beyersdorfer) atmospheric lighting design (Michael O’Connor) and sound design and original music (Liam Bellman-Sharpe). The production is first rate, if unsettling, as it leaves us with profound questions about how much we accept our foundational culture’s lies as truths.
For tickets to The Smuggler at Irish Repertory Theatre in the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre, go to their website https://irishrep.org/show/2022-2023-season/the-smuggler-2/