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Theatre in Review: The White Chip/Nothing Gold Can Stay

Top: Joe Tapper. Photo: Carol Rosegg. Bottom: Talene Monahon, Micheál Richardson. Photo: Spencer Moses.

The White Chip, at 59E59, is the funny drunk of plays: It's a frequently hilarious yarn until you begin to notice the desperation lurking behind the wisecracks. It is presented as the testimony of Steven, a bright, talented theatre director, tracing his progress from recovering Mormon to recovering alcoholic. "I'm twelve years old when I have my first drink," he says, adding that it happens on the same day that he is baptized for the dead -- a uniquely Latter Day Stains practice designed to help souls who perished before the church's founding and are therefore banned from heaven. "It's essentially founded on the same principles as trickle-down economics," we are told, in one of the sidebar moments that provide The White Chip with much of its humor.

Steven's adolescent years are marked by a series of liquor-related misadventures, among them a "minor car crash" and a drunken altercation that leads to a wrongful arrest for armed robbery. His alarmed parents, having drifted from the church, nevertheless send him to a Mormon camp, hoping for a turnaround: "As campers, we're forced to visualize awful things until we break down and cry," he says. "Then we're told to think about how Jesus can make it better." The summer ends with everyone taking part in a show. As he notes, savoring the irony, "The vast majority of the kids here [were] sent because they were gay, being forced to change that through the power of...musical theatre."

Steven, who is straight, discovers the power of theatre for himself, excelling at it in college, despite additional mortifying episodes while under the influence. Post-graduation, he starts a successful theatre company in Atlanta, subsequently landing a staff job at a leading regional theatre in Louisville. (Steven's résumé closely mirrors that of the playwright, Sean Daniels, who staged the exquisite one-man musical The Lion in New York and who is now artistic director of Arizona Theatre Company.) As his drinking grows, so does the fear that it is the source of his creativity. "What if I'm nothing without it?" he wonders. "You want to read a sober Jack Kerouac? Want to hear an adventure from a sober Hunter S. Thompson? I don't think so."

Eventually, the booze takes its toll, forcing him to rely on vodka-spiked Gatorade to get going in the morning, with a similarly hootched-up Diet Coke at work. Despite the way Joe Tapper, who plays Steven, leaps around the stage, as if with springs attached to his shoes, a sense of loss slowly, relentlessly overtakes him, and his determined, can-do smile begins to freeze into a rictus. The turning point comes when he can't bring himself to go home at Christmas, where he would have to face his father, who is slowly succumbing to Parkinson's disease. Steven, so ingratiating and amusing, so adept at getting himself out of scrapes, has become emotionally unavailable to those he loves, and a liar.

AA meetings provide a temporary benefit, but real sobriety proves elusive. (In one sequence, he receives the chip of the title -- a token given to AA first-timers -- over and over, a neat illustration of the cycle of promise and failure in which he is trapped.) Rehab works better, thanks to the hilariously caustic ministrations of Britt, a former Air Force officer whose take-no-prisoners style finally gets Steven's attention. Thanks to his Mormon past, Steven resents Britt's insistence on surrender to a higher power -- who, in this case, would be Jesus Christ. The real breakthrough comes at a Jewish facility, where Steven appreciates the prevailing sense of humor ("Okay, are you ready to no longer be a scumbag?") and where he learns that science can be a higher power, too.

Tapper's energy and humor never flag as he guides us through Steven's years of drunken revelry followed by a long, soul-searing hangover. Even his darkest moments of bottoming out are handled with incisive wit -- and are all the more powerful for it. He gets excellent assistance from the supporting cast of two. Genesis Oliver is especially memorable as Steven's dad, becoming frailer with each appearance, and as Britt, handing out his own special brand of tough love. ("You're not confused. You're fused with your con.") Finnerty Steeves makes a strong impression as Steven's long-distance wife (a relationship that is a story in itself); a worried, eventually fed-up colleague; and his tough-talking mother -- her default greeting is "Fuck you!" -- who is also fond of a drop.

Sheryl Kaller's fast-paced direction has a solid grasp of the script's brash, breezy tone, aided by Leon Rothenberg's wittily apt barrage of sound effects, which includes "Pomp and Circumstance," traffic, hymn singing, the Osmonds' hit "A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock 'N' Roll," cheering crowds, and a bit of the overture to Gypsy. The other design contributions, including -Lawrence E. Moten III's classroom-style set, Rachel Fae Szymanski's lighting, and Robert C. T. Steele's costumes, are all solid. The White Chip is entertaining and unsparing, unsentimentally candid yet filled with hope; a difficult subject is handled with professionalism and craft.

Another view of addiction -- one seemingly ripped from the headlines -- is offered in Nothing Gold Can Stay, at ART/New York Theatres, in which the opioid epidemic spreads its poison through a pair of working-class families in Northern Maine. Clay and Jess are high-school sweethearts facing the separation of college; he is off to a good school, leaving her behind to figure out her next move. By all rights, the unusually bright and well-read Jess should be college-bound, too, but her family is a mess, featuring a pervert stepfather and a mother who takes his side. But their plan is simple and doable: Clay will study and get ahead while Jess works to save up tuition money for herself. Brushing away tears, she tells Clay, "You can be sad that we're going to be apart for a while, but you can't be sad for the logic behind it."

Execution proves more difficult than they anticipated, however. Clay is beaten down by a nonstop cycle of work and study while Jess, who has moved in with Clay's mother, Susan, goes to work at the local chicken-processing plant. Both young people drive themselves unmercifully, but it is Jess who starts taking the edge off with a few snorts of Oxycontin. What starts out as an occasional thing soon becomes a habit and, before long, she is robbing Susan to finance her next hit. Clay comes home to confront her and, from there on in, both of them are headed straight for the abyss.

Nothing Gold Can Stay unfolds in slightly languid fashion, which proves to be a mixed strategy. On a positive note, the playwright, Chad Beckim, refuses to sensationalize a subject that all too easily lends itself to melodrama and over-the-top emoting; at the same time, the play sometimes comes across as a collection of scenes rather than a tightly constructed drama. The narrative is plagued by occasional gaps: Jess, so smart and focused in the early scenes, ends up a train wreck a little too quickly; it's a little hard to believe she would throw her life away so cavalierly. But many scenes are brutally, thrillingly honest -- especially when it comes time to make an inventory of the human wreckage onstage -- marking Beckim as a new writer to watch.

And, under the ultra-naturalistic direction of Shelley Butler, all five cast members offer their considerable best. Talene Monahon, who has ably essayed a variety of roles across the last few seasons, captures Jess' mordant attitude and flat vocal delivery, nailing her inability to recognize that she is on a fast track to self-destruction. The excellent Mary Bacon makes Susan into a warmly maternal presence until disaster strikes and she must defend her home; you'll feel the chill when, in a voice devoid of emotion, she assures Jess that if she comes into the house under the influence, "I'll pluck your eyes out and feed them to the birds." Her final confrontation with Jess is, for all its understatement, as scalding as they come. Peter Mark Kendall, who impressed as a genial sometime mental patient in last season's Blue Ridge, is equally strong as Jess' brother, an EMT and stand-up guy who struggles to help her until she puts his daughter in harm's way. Adrienne Rose Bengtsson, making her Off Broadway debut, is an attention-getter as Susan's acid-tongued daughter, a divorcée with a taste for bad boys. Another newcomer, Micheál Richardson, is especially touching as Clay, whose love for Jess comes with terrible consequences.

The production features a solid design, including Jason Simms' set, which represents Susan's living room and yard; Whitney Locher's appropriately drab costumes; Karen Spahn's lighting; and Sinan Refik Zahar's sound. Despite its grim subject matter, Nothing Gold Can Stay -- a title taken from a Robert Frost poem -- is loaded with smart, snarky talk, including an amusingly risqué conversation about the comedian Bob Saget's physical endowments and several on-target class-related observations: This is a world where choosing to shop at Trader Joe's rather than the IGA means you are putting on airs. And the play's toughened-by-life characters make for formidable antagonists. Partial Comfort Productions, a company that has an unusually high batting average when it comes to finding new writers, has done it again. --David Barbour

(15 October 2019)

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