“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” – Spike Milligan, Irish comedian and creator of “The Goon Show.”
The relationship between money and happiness has always been fraught, and there are a lot of plays that explore this thematic territory. Muscling it’s way into that territory is Lynn Navarra’s play “The Sandman”, a dark comedy that begins with two cops looking for a little side-hustle renovating an Irish bar, and winds its way, like an Irish country road, through the lives of the various folks connected to the place.
Set in 1979, Sandman follows buddy beat cops Paul (Lead actor Michael Bordwell) and Sal (Ben Guralnick, in the sidekick spot) as they stumble upon a huge stash of cocaine being minded for a wee while in the Sandman, the bar owned by an ex-pat Irishman, and his lonely, put-upon wife. The wife, Diane, played with a sweet desperation by Meredith Rust, hasn’t got a clue that husband Tommy (actor/Director Ken Coughlin) has allowed the Irish mob to park their supply at the Sandman, and Tommy seems to be shielding her from his nefarious activities somewhat out of consideration, and a bit out of practicality, but mostly to avoid her potentially haranguing him over it.
The plot thickens courtesy of Tommy’s friend Donny Finn (Dan Lane Williams), a bookie Tommy’s known since they were both back home in Ireland. Tommy trusts his friend, his “brother”, Donny with the information that he’s holding the drugs, and Donnie, under the duress of a loan-shark slicing and dicing, shares the information with his captors in order to buy himself out from under a gambling debt.
While this could easily give over to silly farce, Navarra keeps the play well-tethered, instead, to the emotional lifelines, old and new, between the characters. Policeman Paul develops an affection for the lonely Diane, and also for the Sandman’s only barfly, a faded Irish rose called Peggy (Valerie O’Hara) whose golden years are being spent in a decrepit SRO. Like the rest of the characters, Peggy has her own difficult history with money, having been punished for her acting aspirations by having her family wealth taken away.
Director Coughlin evokes the period with the appropriate music and even a carefully inserted commercial or two from that just-barely-not-the-80’s time, all while playing pub-owner Tommy in a brutally authentic and unsentimental way. Michael Bordwell keeps a steady hand on things as Paul, evoking a bit of Nathan Lane in the comedy and the pathos department.
As in all comedies, even the dark ones, all’s well that ends well, but with dark comedies in particular, the happy ending comes with a price. But playwright Navarra leaves us on an up beat, perhaps money will ultimately not buy them the happiness they were hoping for, but Navarra has us rooting for them to have their chance to find out.
Sandman will run at the John Cullum Theatre, American Theatre of Actors (ATA), 314 West 54th Street, through Sunday, August 20th, 2017. For tickets, please call the box office at 212-581-3044, or visit the ATA website at americantheatreofactors.org.