'The White Chip' review — a witty, fizzy show about addiction recovery
Read our four-star review of The White Chip, a play written by Sean Daniels and directed by Sheryl Kaller that first premiered off Broadway in 2019.
Before learning what Sean Daniels's The White Chip was about, I heard the title and immediately thought casino chips. Maybe it's not too much of a stretch. Daniel's autobiographical story is about a man who, drink (after drink) in hand, takes gambles — though not with money, but with his livelihood.
For those of us (perhaps fortunately) unaware, the title actually refers to the token Alcoholics Anonymous attendees receive on day one — or potentially multiple day ones — of sobriety. At one point in the play, Steven (the stand-in for Daniels, played by Joe Tapper) acquires enough to fill a fishbowl. It might be an exaggeration for comic effect, but it makes the point: His battle with addiction is a long and rocky one.
Let's back up. We first meet Steven when he's a 12-year-old Mormon sneaking beer with a friend. From there, he morphs into a hard-partying college student, a three-martini lunch professional, and when he lands a plum job in the top ranks of a theatre company, a constant day-drinker of vodka and Diet Coke — or as his coworkers perceive him, simply quirky. "You’re an artist. You’re expected to be eccentric!" he exclaims.
Cue laughter, of which The White Chip surprisingly invites a lot. Steven is chipper and charming, almost cartoonishly so, regaling the audience with his booze-fueled misadventures as though he were the face of an ad for the stuff. Over-the-top sound effects (by Leon Rothenberg) and physicality (by director Sharyl Keller) only add to this feeling.
Therein lies the cleverness of Daniels's play: Steven is being ironically self-aware and, at the same time, reenacting a past version of himself that unironically hailed alcohol as the reason for all his successes and therefore as much of a necessity as oxygen.
Halfway through the 90-minute show, when Steven's peers begin to see through his facade, the play's artifice disappears, too. Mostly gone are the sound effects and the overly cheery delivery. A sense of reverence that lurked in the background slowly creeps forward, but save for a few syrupy lines, Daniels avoids a preachy tone and still gives audiences the space to laugh with his flawed characters.
Tapper is joined by two co-stars, who each play numerous figures in Steven's life and expertly match the play's tone shifts. Crystal Dickinson, an invaluable asset to every show she's in, hits the bullseye on both sincere and comic marks. An amiable Jason Tam particularly amuses as an ex-Air Force, ex-coke addict-turned-Jesus freak that helps Steven through rehab, but he also tugs on the heartstrings as Steven's Parkinson's-afflicted dad.
As much as The White Chip centers heavily on Steven, it actually is a tale of community. Steven initially peppers his story with people who enable him: his Mormon friend, his liquid lunch buddies, airport bartenders. By the end, they've shrunk to tempting voices in his head, but in their place are the people who help pull him through.
Photo credit: Crystal Dickinson, Joe Tapper, and Jason Tam in The White Chip. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
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