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The Smuggler Wrestles With the Double-Edged Sword of an American Dream

Ronán Noone writes and directs his poetic solo play at Boston Playwrights' Theatre.

Billy Meleady in Ronán Noone's The Smuggler at Boston Playwrights' Theatre.
(© Stratton McCrady)

Opportunity knocks everywhere in America. You just have to be willing to look in some pretty dark corners to find it.

In Ronán Noone's The Smuggler, a 70-minute dark comedy told entirely in verse, we are afforded an absorbing look into the underbelly of an American dream by way of Tim Finnegan, a down-on-his-luck writer, played by an incredible Billy Meleady, who arrived in America thinking the streets were paved with gold. They're not, he quickly found out. Most aren't paved with anything at all.

Aside from the many merits of Noone's play, the chief asset of this Boston Playwrights' Theatre production (which is also directed by the playwright) is Meleady, who ably tackles Noone's delicious language and is mesmerizing throughout. One-man plays can be tedious. So, too, can plays written in verse. But The Smuggler is ingeniously crafted, dazzlingly acted, and one of the most impressive things I've seen all year.

Having settled on the fictional island of Amity off the Massachusetts coast, Finnegan lives with his wife and young son in what amounts to little more than a shack without a working toilet or hot water. With his writing career as good as dead, Finnegan bartends at a local watering hole. But Finnegan is determined to make something of himself, and when he learns about the very lucrative business of migrant smuggling, he sees this as his chance to cash in.

As program notes confirm, migrant smuggling is a very real and prevalent thing. In 2016 alone, an estimated 2.5 million migrants were smuggled worldwide. And the economic return on these people? An estimated $5.5 to $7 billion. While the migrants being smuggled are consenting, their illegal status places them at the mercy of the smugglers who often charge migrants crippling interest that they spend years working off. But Tim Finnegan seems like such a good guy — which is exactly what The Smuggler confronts us with: a riveting portrait of a man who is likable yet amoral, overcome by the pressures of being a father, a husband, and an immigrant all at the same time.

There is a powerful tension that Noone explores between the locals and the migrant Latinos, most of whom come in to help with the summer tourist boom. A fatal car accident involving an illegal Guatemalan immigrant is a particularly polarizing issue for the island. In one of the play's most gripping scenes, Finnegan chats with the father whose son was killed in the car accident, Meleady playing both roles to hypnotic effect and making it easy to root for Finnegan.

The one thing Noone's production is missing is a more mindful approach to setting. Mentions of ICE cages and school shootings approximate the time period, but they come late in the script. It isn't until midway through, when cellphones are referenced, that we can even be sure this is a contemporary story — a detail that would have helped establish the stakes of the story and unambiguously ground us in a specific environment.

But The Smuggler is still a painstakingly crafted and fulfilling dark comedy about the bleak side of the American dream and the complexity of empathizing with someone who behaves so badly. And that's what Noone does so handily here: He forces us to reckon with our own reactions to the character as he reckons with himself in front of our eyes. Highly theatrical and totally absorbing, The Smuggler is both an exorcism and a riveting sliver of humanity that ranks among the best of the year.