So over the 70 minutes of “The Smuggler,” the bartender regaled an audience of about 30 — only we lucky few at the front were served drinks — with the tale of an Irish immigrant who has come to an island off the New England coast. And, as is often the case with such twisty stories, this one involved unsavory characters and shady shenanigans. In this case, they had to do with the desperation of other refugees and the attempts of men such as Daugherty’s Tim Finnegan to make some money at their pitiable expense.
The details of the caper, as set in verse by playwright Ronan Noone, are recounted with gusto by Daugherty, wearing a bartender’s apron and the grin of a guy who knows how to talk his way out of a jam. Solas Nua, a company with deep roots in Irish culture and a penchant for the linguistically luxe plays of such Irish writers as Enda Walsh and Deirdre Kinahan, teams up here in an intriguing collaboration with the Eaton. The hotel, on K Street NW, invites artists into some of its spaces for special events and bills itself as “an interdisciplinary hotel experience.”
For “The Smuggler,” the site-specific approach proves hugely beneficial. Just as the company turned private homes around the city into performance spaces for its staging of Kinahan’s lyrical history play “Wild Sky,” so has it found a way to heighten the theatricality of Noone’s monologue through uniquely resonant surroundings.
With virtually no artificial design elements other than minimal illumination by lighting designer Marianne Meadows, “The Smuggler” acquires in the Allegory setting the air of an enticing conspiracy. (Daugherty could actually stand to slow down some of his spiel; there are a lot of incidents and names to keep track of in Finnegan’s gabby wake.) The drinks that are poured add to the sense of bonhomie. You almost forget that the events the barman is describing amount to the confessions of a man of few scruples. While the offenders in the tale are brought to life colorfully, the humans who are the cargo remain featureless. A sign of the times, perhaps.
Director Laley Lippard encourages Daugherty to use the entirety of the space, and as the engaging actor interacts with those seated a row back from the bar, you notice that some of them are holding drinks, too, available for purchase before the show. Still, whether you sip a Tipperary or not, the Eaton isn’t a long way to go these days for a bit of sly, poetic diversion.
The Smuggler, by Ronan Noone. Directed by Laley Lippard; lighting, Marianne Meadows; sound, Matthew M. Nielson. About 70 minutes. $40. Through Oct. 6 at Eaton DC, 1201 K St. NW. solasnua.org.