Reviews

Review: The White Chip Makes a Welcome Return Off-Broadway

Sean Daniels’s autobiographical play still has fresh insights to offer about alcoholism and the difficult recovery process.

Crystal Dickinson, Joe Tapper, and Jason Tam appear in the 2024 production of Sean Daniels’s The White Chip off-Broadway.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Sean Daniels’s play The White Chip re-emerges off-Broadway (after a run at 59E59 Theaters in 2019) at around the same time as the Broadway transfer of the Adam Guettel/Craig Lucas musical Days of Wine and Roses, thus giving New York City theatergoers an opportunity to witness two different approaches to depicting the ravages of alcoholism. But though Days of Wine and Roses may have star power and a lush, jazzy musical score behind it, The White Chip has its own considerable virtues: a more single-minded first-person focus, greater theatrical inventiveness, and even more uplift at the end.

The single-mindedness comes from it being autobiographical in nature. The White Chip is a dramatized version of Daniels’s own experiences as an alcoholic, and he is unsparing in his depiction of the intoxicated highs and the soul-killing lows. Steven (Joe Tapper) takes his first sip of alcohol at age 12, and from there he doesn’t look back. Through his college years discovering a love for theater, to a professional career as a stage director that takes him all over the country, alcohol remains the one great constant in his life, one that has the effect of destroying romantic relationships as well as pushing him away from his parents (Crystal Dickinson and Jason Tam, both of whom play multiple characters). Eventually, it leeches into his professional life as well, bringing him to a rock-bottom place that finally motivates him to check into a rehab center.

As with a lot of autobiographical shows, The White Chip falls into a one-thing-after-another rhythm that one might not consider “dramatic.” That rarely becomes a problem under Sheryl Kaller’s vigorous direction. A lot of the show’s rapid-fire pace stems from the inventive ways Kaller and her design team rifle through various places and times without the need for cumbersome set changes. On Lawrence E. Moten III’s classroom-like set, the three actors move chairs around, use props, and don clothing on hangers (Devario Simmons is credited with the costume design) to indicate different characters. Even more than Abigail Hoke-Brady’s lighting design, Leon Rothenberg’s sound design works to delineate the many changes in settings, from the hustle and bustle of urban life to the quiet of the suburban environs to which Steven eventually decamps to get his life back on track.

None of those bits of scintillating theatrical resourcefulness distract from Daniels’s compelling story, one that stands out thanks to the quality of its details and the broader insights they impart. For one thing, Steven justifies his drunken actions by leaning on that classic canard of all the great artists—he cites Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, among others—being drunks, suggesting a societal standard encouraging inebriation for the sake of a higher calling. And his attempts to avoid the self-reflection that might have led him to rehab sooner are “entertaining” in an appalling way. The play’s title refers to a chip Alcoholics Anonymous gives its members as a way to mark sobriety milestones; Steven’s accumulation of many of them in different cities suggests his initial lack of seriousness in confronting his alcoholism.

Joe Tapper stars in the 2024 production of Sean Daniels’s The White Chip off-Broadway.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Daniels’s most interesting thematic thread comes to the fore during Steven’s struggle toward sobriety. As Steven notes at the beginning, he grew up Mormon but ultimately rejected the faith, growing to disdain organized religion altogether—which makes the spirituality-heavy rhetoric of AA in general off-putting, failing to offer him a viable entry point into the rehabilitation process. Only through understanding the science behind his addiction, the neurochemistry that leads him to reach for alcohol at the drop of a hat, does he begin to see a path forward.

This emphasis on science versus religion is the closest Daniels comes to preachiness in The White Chip. Mostly, Daniels lets the accumulation of details and impressions speak for themselves. And the three-person cast brings it all to satisfying life. Dickinson and Tam have a ball playing their various characters, ranging from Dickinson’s no-nonsense mother and Tam’s mellower (and eventually Parkinson’s-afflicted) father to both of them playing Jewish characters who help Steven see the scientific light during his rehab stint.

Tapper, though, is the star of the show, and the energy and charisma he brings to his role is in some ways unnerving. It makes sense the character is able to hide his alcoholism for so long before his great fall. Tapper’s performance allied with the sharpness of Daniels’s writing is enough to make The White Chip worth seeing if you think you’ve seen enough stories about addiction and recovery.

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The White Chip

Final performance: March 9, 2024