Actor Rex Daugherty describes Tim Finnegan as the hardest role he has ever had to learn. Not only does he have to master the 9,000 words in constant but irregular rhyme, but he has to deliver them while mixing cocktails and serving the drinks to the audience.

“The Smuggler” premiered at the 1st Irish Festival of New York in January and won Ronan Noone the festival’s Best Playwright award. Daugherty was on hand to witness the debut and immediately wanted to produce the show for Solas Nua, the Washington collective that describes itself as “the only organization in the United States exclusively dedicated to contemporary Irish arts.” Daugherty is artistic director for the group’s theatrical arm, and this new, one-person show by a Galway native, which begins performances Sept. 8, fit his needs perfectly.

It also satisfied a desire to present a show in Daugherty’s favorite bar, Allegory in the Eaton Hotel. The actor likes the pub not only for its social justice aspects (murals of integration pioneer Ruby Bridges adorn the room) but also for its old-fashioned cocktails. Finnegan is a bartender telling a barroom tale of robbery, betrayal and human trafficking, so it made sense for Daugherty to perform the role while serving drinks from behind the bar at the Allegory.


“Small theater companies across D.C. are struggling for space,” he points out. Last year, Solas Nua commissioned playwrights Deirdre Kinahan and Psalmayene 24 to co-write “The Frederick Douglass Project,” which was presented on a floating pier on the Anacostia River. This year Solas Nua (Irish for new light) is presenting “The Smuggler” in a pub.

“If you’re an edgier, more experimental company, it’s difficult to afford a permanent home in this real estate climate,” Daugherty says. “But necessity is the mother of invention, and scrambling to find spaces for your shows can lead to site-specific shows. We can offer a show on a pier overlooking Frederick Douglass’s house, or a show in a bar where the actor will make cocktails for you.”

The 30 ticket holders crowding the bar will be able to order cocktails (without talking, via coupons). “In an era of great television and great restaurants,” says Daugherty, 36, “theaters are competing with that. It’s not that people my age won’t pay for live theater, but they’re looking for an experience they can’t get somewhere else — an unusual site, a blend of disciplines.”


Daugherty will mix the drinks while playing Finnegan, an Irish immigrant on the fictional New England island of Amity (made famous by the movie “Jaws”). Finnegan has a wife unhappy with living in a shack without indoor plumbing and neighbors on edge about a fatal car accident involving a rich teenager and an undocumented Guatemalan. Like the Italian immigrants in “The Godfather,” this Irish bartender turns to crime to battle the odds against him. He confesses to some unsavory behavior, but he does lift his family out of poverty into the American middle class.

For this show, Daugherty is working with director Laley Lippard, who has experience working on site-specific pieces. In rehearsals, they’ve been coping with the challenges of working in a space not designed for theater. Where do you put the lights? How do you project your lines over clinking glasses and ambient murmurs? How do you use the rhymes in Noone’s script as an asset rather than a stumbling block?

“Laley and I have been talking about it as a magic trick,” Daugherty says. “The magician has the advantage, because he knows where the trick is going and the audience doesn’t. I like that the rhymes are not rhyming couplets. That would feel too much like a gimmick; it would be hard to break that cadence. But the irregular rhyme feels more like a conversation, more like hip-hop, lyrical without being predictable. It’s a character I haven’t seen onstage speaking in a language I haven’t heard before. If the trick works, the audience will go, ‘Wow, that happened right before my eyes.’ ”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Laley Lippard created site-specific work with the Welders; that work was created with a different company. This version has been updated.

If you go

The Smuggler

Allegory at the Eaton Hotel, 1201 K St. NW. 765-276-8201.

Dates: Sept. 8-Oct. 6.

Prices: $40.