“The Smuggler” Playwright Ronán Noone
Two very special productions are onstage this month at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. Both have connections offering interest to Boston audiences. Manhattan is easily accessible as a day trip or a quick overnight theater visit via Amtrak. And with Irish Rep offering matinee performances on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, it’s an entirely doable proposition.
First is a critically acclaimed production of the one-man show, “The Smuggler,” a thriller in rhyme, written by Ronán Noone. Originally from Clifden in Galway, Noone is both a longtime South Shore resident and on the faculty at Boston University where he teaches playwriting in the MFA program. Performances run through March 12.
A full interview with Ronán follows below.
Second is a production of “Endgame” by Nobel Prize-winning Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. Directly by Ciarán O'Reilly and a New York Times Critic’s Pick, the production stars Bill Irwin and John Douglas Thompson, with Joe Grifasi, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes.
John Douglas Thompson and Bill Irwin in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” Photo: Carol Rosegg
The Wall Street Journal dubbed the show an “expert production…which is supremely funny . . . ranks as the best I’ve seen.” Performances run through April 9.
Local audiences will recall that Tony Award-winning master actor, writer, director, and clown Bill Irwin delighted Boston theatergoers this past October with a presentation of his one-man show, “On Beckett” at ArtsEmerson.
At the time, he spoke with Boston Irish about both his love for and his challenges with Beckett. Read the original article here.
As described by Irish Rep, “Endgame” “tells the story of Hamm (John Douglas Thompson), who is reduced to living in one room, in which he sits blind. His only escape from his solitary world is the company of his aging, legless parents who live in garbage bins, and his shuffling servant, Clov (Bill Irwin), who is at his beck and call, and who, like a dog, comes when whistled for. The only thing left for Hamm is to wait for the inevitable end.”
Supposedly Beckett's favorite play, “Endgame” is a tragicomedy of epic proportions.
In Ronán Noone’s “The Smuggler” (written entirely in rhymed verse ), Tim Finnegan takes audiences on an engrossing journey through his life on Amity, a Summer island off Cape Cod.
He’s an Irish immigrant trying to make it as a writer, but he’s struggling. He loses his job as a bartender, and then tensions flare after a fatal car crash. A stranger arrives with a plan that Tim finds intriguing. But how far will he go to become a true American? What price will he pay?
Directed by Conor Bagley and starring Michael Mellamphy, the mischievous piece has been praised by critics. The New Yorker described “The Smuggler” as “a “terrific, one-man, one-act play. Mellamphy is a dynamic presence, shifting easily among male and female roles and a variety of accents, while showing off some damn impressive cocktail-mixing moves.”
Michael Mellamphy in “The Smuggler”. Photo: Carol Rosegg
Noone won the Best Playwright Award for this mesmerizing and strikingly original work at Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Festival in 2019. He is also the author of “Brendan,” “The Atheist,” “Scenes from an Adultery,” “The Second Girl,” and “The Lepers of Baile Baiste.”
“The Smuggler” was originally intended to be part of the 2020 season at Irish Rep but was cancelled during the COVID shutdown. Happily, it’s now at Irish Rep’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre.
Recently, Noone shared his thoughts with me about the production at Irish Rep.
Q. What does it mean finally having "The Smuggler" on the Irish Rep calendar?
A. It is marvelous having “The Smuggler” at the Rep. They have been keeping Irish and Irish American Theatre at the center of theatrical conversations in America for 35 years. And to be associated with them is an honor. It is so difficult to rise a play in New York and to have it succeed, but when you have producers like Ciarán and Charlotte [O’Reilly] behind you, it is an endorsement of all the hard work.
Q. How involved have you been in this particular production?
A. I attended the first few days of rehearsals. I offered notes and answered questions around the character and the staging and what I had learned from previous productions. I left Conor Bagley, the director, and Mick Mellamphy, the actor, and the team to build it from there. I returned for the first preview and added some more notes to the staging and some wee script changes. We implemented those changes and then we were off and running.
The play has had performances at Solas Nua in Washington, and in Florida at Urbanite Theatre, in Boston at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, and at Corrib Theatre in Portland, Oregon. So, it was in pretty good shape before we went into rehearsals in New York.
Q. What's the biggest challenge an actor faces in presenting a "thriller in rhyme?” He has to portray so many characters. How does he maintain focus and keep the audience engaged?
A. The actor has to allow the words to become part of them. The words become like an appendage. Once the actor has them so confidently, they can play with the script. They understood the internal logic, the plot connections, and how the character is evolving throughout. This allows the actor to use the audience as a second character in the play. They can manipulate the story confidently, while directing it to particular audience members. It is like a musical performance. The actor can shape the performance like a concert, building in the particular climaxes while using the audience to stir him on.
Q. In the past, I recall our speaking about you landing on Martha's Vineyard to paint houses many years ago. Did that time inform the tone and content of "The Smuggler."
A. Absolutely. The play takes place on the fictional island of Amity. It is the place referred to in the movie “Jaws,” which was filmed on Martha's Vineyard. My five years working on the Island and learning "how to be an American" was highly influenced by the people I worked with at bars and building sites there.
Q. I also understand you did not initially see "The Smuggler" as a play in rhyme. What led you to that decision, and how challenging was it to convert whatever material you had already written?
A. I was about a half through the story when suddenly I noticed that some of the words began to rhyme. And I don't know if it was "suddenly," but rather, I put down the lines and two end words clicked in rhyme. I stopped and thought, ‘Wouldn't this story be more theatrical and a bigger challenge if I could rhyme it from the top? Let's give it spectacle.’ So that's what I did.
Then it became about the challenge of playing with language while finding the comedy in a cheap rhyme and an expensive rhyme. With that in mind, I had to concentrate on the thriller aspects of the story and focus on clarity for the audience. I wanted the plot to twist and turn like a thriller so that the audience didn't know what to expect.
Q. What do you hope audiences take away from the production at Irish Rep?
A. I want them to be fascinated by the Olympian task of an actor memorizing 9,000 words in rhyme while spinning bottles and making drinks in a barroom set-up while telling you a story that keeps you glued.
Certainly, there are fierce ideas in the play that will make you question what it means to be undocumented in America today, but my kind of theatre has always been to put something on the table and then let the audience burn it or celebrate it. I don't think there is any in-between in this play.
Irish Rep is located at 132 West 22nd Street in New York City between 6th and 7th Avenues. For information and tickets, visit IrishRep.org or call 212-727-2737.