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The White Chip

Theatre Review by Kimberly Ramírez - February 1, 2024

Crystal Dickinson, Joe Tapper, and Jason Tam
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Written by Sean Daniels, a self-proclaimed recovering Mormon and alcoholic, The White Chip serves up a compelling autobiographical chronicle of one man's battle against addiction with a refreshing comic twist. This unique dramatic concoction, currently running at The Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, is likely to leave you shaken and stirred with plenty of laughter and sobs, often in the same moment.

Actor Joe Tapper, who has been public about his own struggles with alcohol abuse, portrays Steven, the protagonist representing Daniels. Steven, too, is a theatremaker; as the character renders the rise of both his performing arts career and his alcoholism, he cites several well-known alcoholic playwrights, including Williams, Albee, and O'Neill, musing "What if living like this is what makes me an artist? What if I'm nothing without it?"

Tapper is reprising the role five years after his performance in The White Chip at 59E59 Theaters. He plays Steven with such intense, raw authenticity that it feels like he could have authored the show. The seeming inseparability of Daniels, Tapper, and Steven underscores the universality of this powerful, confessional play.

Crystal Dickinson and Jason Tam portray parents, friends, colleagues, coworkers, and others in Steven's direct address narrative, constantly morphing through multiple roles, spanning dozens of identities, ages, cultures, and conditions. In the first few minutes alone, Tam is a convincing explicator of Mormon baptismal practices, a mischievous 12-year-old, a drunk college chum, prison warden, boss, and father afflicted with Parkinson's. Dickinson brings wild amounts of humor and marvelous depth to Steven's lovers, friends, and fellow alcoholic mother.

To achieve the transformations, the company pulls props and essential wardrobe elements (costumes by Devario Simmons) from cubby cases flanking the acting area, mediated by a reversible chalkboard on and beyond which characters scrawl key phrases to signal shifts in action and intention. The scenic design is by Lawrence E. Moten III, lit by overhead utility lamps and bursts of color through grimy transom windows high on the upstage cinderblock wall (lighting by Abigail Hoke-Brady). Escaping the workshop-style meeting room appears nearly impossible. Sheryl Kaller's direction exploits epic techniques to reveal the artifice behind the illusion. The White Chip works to simultaneously dispel the magic behind both alcohol consumption and theatrical entertainment.

The show's title comes from the white chip that is the first in a sequence of small, round tokens signifying sobriety milestones throughout the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery process. Though Steven keeps declaring a desire to stop drinking, chronic relapses lead to his infinite accumulation of white chips that strand him stumbling at step one. In a clever dramatization of this elliptical torture, Tam and Dickinson trap Steven transferring tokens between two fishbowls brimming with white chips while mocked by a "Yakety Sax" soundtrack (sound design by Leon Rothenberg). In the background, a subtle feature of Moten's set is an analog wall clock stopped at 12:04 but with an endlessly rotating second hand, spinning yet stuck.

The circular cycle gives way to Steven's road to recovery when he meets a pair of climactic characters who explain the chemistry behind dependency. The White Chip interlaces themes of religion, alcoholism, and theatremaking in ways that give the piece a strong structural continuity and brings about a satisfying, informative resolution. Steven's confessional narrative reveals the innermost machinations of the suffering mind, making it clear that anyone can fall victim to addiction.

Sean Daniels aims to erase stigmas, emphasizing that "The arts will play a leading role in changing the narrative of the public health crisis that is addiction in our country." Past productions across the nation have made it free for recovery centers to attend. Here, a program insert encourages spectators to "stay dry after the show" with a list of where to find quality mocktails in bars and restaurants in the immediate Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. The White Chip proves to be a potent piece that moves audiences while educating us about addiction. This show may very well save lives.

The White Chip
Through March 9, 2024
The Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 W. 52nd St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: