Monday, October 14, 2019

89 (2019-2020): Review: THE WHITE CHIP (seen October 13, 2019)

“Drinking . . . Again” 

Sean Daniels’s The White Chip was originally produced at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA. Now at 59E59 in a production by the Arizona Theatre Company, where Daniels is artistic director, it's an inventively presented, inspirational, temperance dramedy about someone who successfully overcomes the curse of alcoholism. 

While it has moments both funny and touching, it’s hard not to see it as something that might more appropriately be produced regularly at AA meetings than Off Broadway. Stylistic issues aside, it’s very much in the tradition of Bill and Dr. Bob, seen locally in 2013. 
Finnerty Steeves, Genesis Oliver, Joe Tapper. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
Although played by three excellent actors, The White Chip is not unlike many one-person plays in which a single, chameleon-like performer plays not only the central figure but all the colorful people, male and female, appearing in his life. That central figure is middle-aged Steven McNally (Joe Tapper, deeply committed although looking a bit young for the character), who narrates his memoir-like experiences as the son of not particularly devout Florida Mormons.
Joe Tapper, Finnerty Sreeves. 
Tapper is abetted wonderfully by Genesis Oliver and Finnerty Steeves, who play not only his parents but his wives, lovers, colleagues, bartenders, friends,and rehab counselors, expertly changing their voices and behavior—helped by Robert C.T. Steele’s minimal costume pieces—for each transformation. Lawrence E. Moten III’s essentialist setting, resembling an all-purpose, nursery-schoolroom, is little more than a half-dozen banquet hall-type chairs, some bookcases, and a large, movable blackboard. Director Sheryl Kaller shows her stuff in making this environment an active player in the narrative.
Joe Tapper, Genesis Oliver, Finnerty Steeves.
Steven, with a heavy dose of religious skepticism and humor, recounts his Mormon background, describing his restrained, sensitive father, and more expressive mother (given to tossing “Fuck. You” darts at her son). He proceeds to explain his adolescent introduction to alcohol, from the first bitter taste of a beer to his descent into uncontrollable boozing. He moves through the drunkenness of his college days to his relationships with women to his burgeoning career as a regional theatre director, explaining how he managed to get ahead by hiding his drunkenness under ever-more devious lies and self-rationalizations. 
Genesis Oliver, Finnerty Steeves, Joe Tapper.
His family ties and career path begin to fray, even after his father begins to suffer the dire effects of Parkinson’s. He tries AA, where we learn about the titular white chip, given to new participants in the program. Steven keeps relapsing, though, until, finally, after losing a major career opportunity, he reenters rehab in a last-ditch attempt at recovery. There, he achieves, with the support of a feisty, drill sergeant-like counselor, and, later, the scientific advice of Jewish rehab counselors, the breakthrough that dries him out, reconciles him with his mother, gets his life back on track, and lets him proudly cite the number of days since he’s been sober.
Finnerty Steeves, Joe Tapper.
The White Chip, briskly directed with meticulous imagination by Kaller, uses informational chalk-writing on both floor and blackboard, and a combination of direct address and dramatized mini-scenes to move the narrative forward. An exceptional sound design by Leon Rothenberg is perfectly integrated into the action, as are Rachel Fae Szymanski’s multiple lighting cues.
Genesis Oliver.
A nagging question is the degree to which The White Chip is autobiographical. Everything about it suggests the specificity of authentic experience, from the career and family facts to the lies and twisted rationales. Steven even mentions his founding of an Atlanta company called Dad’s Garage, a real company founded by playwright Daniels. Coyly changing the name to a fictional one blunts the play’s reality, which, given its obvious purposes, is only meaningful if it’s about an actual person.
Joe Tapper.
Whatever the reason for the fudging, it’s an unnecessary distraction from a play that will have an emotional, and, hopefully, uplifting impact on anyone dealing with their own or someone else’s substance abuse. For others, it adds little to what we already have seen countless times in plays and movies. That, though, doesn't prevent it from going down the hatch easily because of its breezy, 90-minute performance. For that, I lift my glass.

59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through October 26