By Sean Daniels; Directed by Sheryl Kaller
Produced by Arizona Theatre Company, Tom Kirdahy, and Hunter Arnold
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 10.26.19
59E59 Theatre, 59 East 59th Street
by Adrienne Urbanski on 10.21.19
Genesis Oliver, Joe Tapper, and Finnerty Steeves in White Chip. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: This moving and sardonically funny drama explores the true story of playwright Sean Daniels' struggle with alcoholism.
At Alcoholics’ Anonymous, a white chip symbolizes someone who is newly sober or someone who is trying to become sober again after a relapse. In The White Chip, the main character, Steven (Joe Tapper), relapses again and again with many new starts on his road to recovery. In one scene, he is handed white chips over and over again until he can pour handfuls of them from one bowl into another. He repeatedly hits rock bottom only to discover that he still has even lower to go.
Steven has his first encounter with alcohol as a twelve-year-old struggling to deal with the disorienting rituals of his Mormon family. He takes his first few sips of beer and is immediately hooked. “A lifetime love affair has begun,” he announces. A regular routine of heavy drinking follows him all through high school and college and eventually into the world of regional theater where he makes his name as artistic director for a fledgling company. For a while Steven is a huge success and manages to be a high-functioning alcoholic, starting off his day with a bottle of Diet Coke mixed with vodka. As most social functions in his home state of Kentucky seem to revolve around ever-flowing bourbon and mint juleps, Steven is the life of the party, forwarding his career as he plies those at the top with his liquored-up wit. When his father is diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he uses it as another excuse to drink himself into oblivion and distance himself from his family. His wake-up call begins when he drives himself into a telephone pole, narrowly avoiding killing himself or another driver.
Based on playwright Seth Daniels’ life story, much of The White Chip is presentational in style, with Steven directly addressing the audience as he explains key moments from his life. With chalk in hand, schoolteacher style, he and his fellow actors use a blackboard to explain such concepts as "how to hide your alcoholism at work" and "being baptized for the dead" in the Mormon church. Steven also gets on his knees and writes out in chalk on stage key references from the story, as though he is making sense of his own timeline. Supporting cast Genesis Oliver and Finnerty Steeves take on many roles throughout the show's duration, skillfully jumping from character to character without missing a beat, using props and clothing to denote their ever-changing roles. Oliver in particular shows great range and a knack for comedy, especially when playing a former Air Force officer-turned-preacher and addiction specialist who urges Steven to turn to prayer and to a higher power.
While recovery narratives may be a familiar terrain, The White Chip stands out due to Daniels’ preference for honesty and nuance over preachiness and sentimentality. Plumbing his own past demons for material, he appealingly fills his script with self-deprecation and gallows humor. Joe Tapper shines as he drolly delivers the text’s deadpan humor while also navigating the more emotional scenes with understated authenticity. The production’s minimalist sets provide focus to Daniels' skillful writing and Tapper’s enigmatic performance. In the end Steven makes it to sobriety, not through religion, but through science. He learns about the brain chemistry that makes him crave a drink and just how long it will take for his brain to regain balance and produce normal levels of dopamine without the aid of alcohol. But his happy ending is not a perfect upwards arc, as Steven still acknowledges that his desire to drink will never fully disappear.
(The White Chip plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through October 26, 2019. The running time is 1 hour 30 minutes without an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:15 and Saturdays at 2:15 and 7:15. Tickets are $38.50 and are available at 59e59.org or by calling 646-892-7999.)
The White Chip is by Sean Daniels. Directed by Sheryl Kaller. Set Design by Lawrence E. Moten III. Lighting Design by Rachel Fae Szymanski. Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg. Stage Manager is Kristi Hess.
The cast is Finnerty Steeves, Genesis Oliver, and Joe Tapper.