“I am/An Amerikan,” says Tim Finnegan, the Irish bartender-cum-storyteller in Ronán Noone’s “The Smuggler: A Monologue in Verse.” “Worked hard to be/A citizan,” he continues in a Dublin accent, the words purposely misspelled in the script. He cheekily punches the last syllables, emphasizing what the play’s subtitle already warned us about: We’re seeing a thriller in rhyme.
This is the tone that this unkempt play, produced by the Irish Repertory Theater, strikes throughout: pat, masquerading as playful.
It’s 2023, in a bar in an affluent Massachusetts community. Tim’s serving up drinks while telling us his story. He needed money for his family: his ever-exasperated wife and their ill toddler. Desperate, Tim found an untapped market to exploit: the homes of undocumented immigrants, many of whom are involved with lucrative illegal enterprises like human smuggling. Defending himself with weak arguments about moral subjectivity and telling us he’s just a good guy in tough circumstances, perhaps even a kind of Robin Hood, Tim says he robbed the immigrants for the down payment on a new home.
Some other things happen: a car crash, a toppled tree, a beating, a murder, though many serve as diversions that needlessly overextend the storytelling. (A bonkers basement battle with a herculean rat, however, is the most suspenseful, and comical, portion of the play, in part because it’s so random.)
“The Smuggler,” a one-man show, means to draw the audience into a moral quandary about Tim’s actions and the unfair status of immigrants and the citizen have-nots of America. But the play never demonstrates enough of Tim’s character to make him an interesting figure. Nor does it indicate it has a nuanced political statement — just transparent generalizations meant to be wise aphorisms about the American dream. (“You do what you need to do/To become what you want/To be.”)
Michael Mellamphy is affable enough as Tim, like a regular about town, but he’s neither as charming nor as menacing as his narration would have us believe. Under Conor Bagley’s awkward direction, Mellamphy especially struggles in the transitions between scenes and characters: the accents muddled, the gestures, postures and voices forced. His movements around the space — circling, pacing around the bar — are more choreographed than natural.
The immersive set design, by Ann Beyersdorfer at the intimate W. Scott McLucas Studio Theater, provides color and detail. The walls of the theater are littered with quintessential Irish dive décor: ships, anchors, Irish flags. (“The Smuggler,” which won the 2019 best playwright award at New York’s 1st Irish Festival, was also staged in Washington, D.C., that year in an actual bar.)
The play is loaded with “cheap” rhymes — as Noone himself describes them in his script — questionable metaphors, odd meter and endless nudge-and-winks to the form (“And maybe at this point/You’re getting bored/With the exposition”). Still, “The Smuggler” has more issues than how violently it strong-arms the word “hyperbole” into an exact rhyme with “today.” (And that’s very violently, by the way.) The play has several glaring blind spots: The few women mentioned are unlikable, often nags, and the various brown immigrants all seem to be criminals, primarily because the playwright has failed to engage with the deeper issues of gender or race.
If “The Smuggler” aims to be about the price of the American dream and the moral cost of being a successful American citizen, it takes more than a few measures of doggerel from a black-market bartender to do so.
Through Feb. 26 at Irish Repertory Theater, Manhattan; irishrep.org. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.