Playwright has nowhere to hide in ‘The White Chip’
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Daniels's world premiere play is a candid, self-lacerating, and often funny memoir of his alcoholism and — this isn't really a spoiler, is it? — his continuing recovery. Putting up "The White Chip" in his first season in Lowell is an all-in move. No wonder he says in the program that he's "terrified."
That middle stretch charts two stories, his ascendant career in American theater and the drinking that continued in spite of it. Or rather: his drinking, and the career that continued in spite of it. Plays he directed got great reviews all over the country even as he was boozing morning, noon, and night. The board of a Kentucky theater where he worked was concerned, but he kept putting them off. It seems a wonder that he drove only himself into a telephone pole, and not his company too.
The play also tells the story of his calamitous private life: a long-distance marriage, affairs, a difficult, alcoholic mother, and a beloved father falling victim to Parkinson's disease. Adventures turn to disasters, cheerful self-deception turns to degradation, and then there's the black, desperate bottom.
The story is briskly told by director Sheryl Kaller and her cast of three, with good humor, bullet points, and a few props and projections. Broadway veteran Jeffrey Binder, making his MRT debut, plays Sean as a kind of guy we all know, a rueful, stubble-chinned wiseacre. His performance deepens along with the hole Sean digs for himself.
All the other characters — a bunch — are played by Benjamin Evett and Isabel Keating, skillfully pulling personas on and off as quickly as they change a hat or shirt. Evett, a Boston mainstay, has an especially nice turn as a military veteran who shows up to guide Sean's efforts to get sober.
"The White Chip" is named for the beginner's token in Alcoholics Anonymous. As indicated by the program notes and in-show sobriety tips, the production is very much intended to have a direct impact, to be a voice speaking to drinkers and other addicts, a voice Daniels wishes he'd heard when he was sinking.
It's a winning show and a thorough success on those terms, but the faithfulness with which Daniels hews to the arc of the drinker's story can be limiting. Recovery narratives are all different, yet all the same. The through line varies only in the ending. Daniels has triumphed by earning a happy one. But it leaves you eager to see his next play, one that won't so comfortably fit the paradigm.
The White Chip
Play by Sean Daniels.
Directed by Sheryl Kaller.
Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre. At Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, Lowell, through Jan. 31. Tickets $23-$60, 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org