MRT’s ‘White Chip’ Delivers A Humorous Take on Recovery (4 Stars)
By Mike Hoban
‘The White Chip’ – Written by Sean Daniels; Directed by Sheryl Kaller; Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell through January 31.
‘The White Chip’, now playing at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, is able to do what few portrayals of alcoholism in theater and film have been able to do – generate laughs. This is no “Days of Wine and Roses”, “Lost Weekend” or even “Come Back Little Sheba”, as playwright (and MRT artistic director) Sean Daniels makes clear at the start of this autobiographical play. While those brilliant works show the alcoholics in a near psychotic state before getting help, “White Chip” gets its point across by showing the absurdity of the thinking that the outwardly successful Daniels employs as his drinking problem becomes glaringly obvious to everyone but him.
Told in a style similar to an AA “drunkalogue” (where alcoholics tell the story of their drinking and how they stopped and stayed stopped), Daniels details his slide from the very beginning, as he picks up beer as a Mormon teen, which escalates into college binge drinking, and carries into his career, apparently with no real consequences. But when his father develops Parkinson’s and he can’t deal with watching his hero decline, the drinking really starts to pick up. Instead of being more useful to his Dad and mother, he starts making excuses to not show up, and his father passes. His relationships with his wife and girlfriend (he has an open marriage) begin to deteriorate, and since they both had alcoholic fathers, they hang in there as long as possible before cutting him loose. And his successful career – which was something that he could always point to as evidence that his drinking was “not that bad” – begins to suffer and he is eventually fired.
Along the way, he flirts with getting sober, showing up at the occasional AA meeting to pick up a white chip (a token in the form of a poker chip that marks the first day of sobriety for people in AA), but he can’t seem to make it past 70 days, when he invariably picks up a drink. His drinking gets worse and he begins picking up enough white chips to start his own poker game. It’s not until he goes into a 30-day rehab (following a dream visit from his deceased father) that things begin to turn around. And since Daniels is now the artistic director of the MRT, we know how it turned out. But it’s the telling of the story that makes this show work.
Daniels has assembled a top-notch creative team for this play, including Tony Award-winning director Sheryl Kaller (who directed “Choice” at the Huntington in the fall), Broadway actors Isabel Keating and Jeffrey Binder, as well as Boston favorite Benjamin Evett. The set is incredibly spare (save for a projection screen) and props are limited to hats, shirts, cups and, of course, bottles. Binder plays Daniels, and his portrayal as an increasingly desperate drunk is convincing, as is his ability to narrate in hindsight with a clear perspective of his insane behavior. Keating and Evett play a multitude of characters effectively, moving seamlessly from Mom and Dad, to wives, girlfriends and mentors. Audience members that have been either directly or indirectly by alcoholism will recognize a host of those characters and their behaviors, and there is also a recovery lesson built into the end of the play, that doesn’t carry a hint of preachiness. See it whether you like the subject or not, and you may get a whole new perspective on addiction. For more info, go to: http://www.mrt.org/show/white-chip