2:11 pm Sep. 26, 2012
The trio of characters in Red Dog Howls, on now at the New York Theater Workshop are, to put it mildly, having a rough time.
Michael is mourning his recently deceased father and trying to piece together an incomplete family history based on clues he left behind. Michael’s wife Gabriella is enduring a difficult pregnancy without much help from her preoccupied husband. And Rose, the old woman who might be able to help both Michael and Gabriella, is trapped in an emotional hell where she relives her life’s most painful moments on an endless loop in her tortured mind.
It feels less than generous, given the characters’ dire straits, to say anything unkind about them. But Red Dog Howls, while earnest and thoughtful and well performed, disappoints dramatically, and doesn’t do its characters justice.
As Rose, a 91-year-old Armenian grandmother who makes a mean pilaf and arm wrestles like a champ, Kathleen Chalfant brings her always impressive talents to the stage. (She’s lived with the role for years, since she played Rose in the play’s first reading back in 2007 at New World Stages.) She knows the truth about Michael’s mysterious family tree, but she fears (probably correctly) that revealing it to him too quickly might destroy them both. So instead the facts are doled out in tiny, heavily accented doses over the course of many visits to her apartment.
The secrets she reveals range from the small to the enormous—from your grandfather wasn’t really your grandfather to millions of Armenians were murdered by the Turks in 1915—as the scope of the play vacillates between a family drama and the history of the Armenian genocide. But the minor revelations come off as predictable, mechanically paced bits of earnest drama, while the major revelations seem jarring and melodramatic.
And these revelations must carry the whole 90-minute, intermissionless play, since Michael and Gabriella are too thinly drawn to be compelling on their own; Alfredo Narciso has a charismatic presence, but there’s not enough material to flesh out his role as the enigmatic Michael, while gets Red Dog Howls’ only (quite welcome) funny lines as Gabriella but is reduced to a minor character for the second half of the play.
Playwright Alexander Dinelaris tries to use a small-scale story to tell the larger tale of Armenian suffering. But emotionally, the play doesn’t survive such a split: Michael and Gabriella’s chapter is too tepid to propel the narrative, while Rose’s seems far too profound and sprawling to be squeezed into such a small dramatic frame.
'Red Dog Howls' is showing through October 14 at New York Theater Workshop, 79 E. 4th St. Tickets are $65. Call 212-279-4200. All photos ©Joan Marcus
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