Monday, September 24, 2012

Red Dog Howls

When a show is deeply sincere and takes genocide as its topic, the idea of criticizing it feels churlish and in bad taste. Therefore, let me stipulate that I recognize that Red Dog Howls was put together with the best of intentions and that the Armenian genocide is an important and heartbreaking topic.
Kathleen Chalfant, Alfredo Narciso
Photo: Joan Marcus
That being said, I must now add that Red Dog Howls is not well-written and trades too much on the horrors of history. From its disingenuous opening monologue to its inevitable Sophie's choice moment, little in Red Dog Howls is authentic or earned.

[spoilers below]

Let's start with that opening monologue. Michael Kiriakos, about whom we know nothing at this point, tells us, "There are sins, from which we can never be absolved. I know this... because I have committed one." Except that we will find out, much later, that the words are not his--the very suspense on which the show is based is false.

The words belong to Rose Afratian, Kiriakos's grandmother--the one he thought had died decades before his birth. How did he discover her words--and eventually meet her?

After Kiriakos's father's death, Kiriakos found a small box labeled, "Junior, don’t open anything inside this box." And Kiriakos opened the box because his father was so exact with words that he knew it was okay to open the box itself, just not anything in it. Inside was a pile of letters, with only one opened. Kiriakos decided to go to the return address, and there he met the woman who eventually told him that she is his grandmother.

This is an awful lot of work to get these two characters to meet! Author Alexander Dinelaris clearly wants some mystery here, and to send his protagonist on a bit of a quest, but, please. First of all, if Kiriakos's father wanted Kiriakos to meet Rose, wasn't he taking a bit of a risk by waiting until after his own death? Why would he think that he'd predecease Rose? Why would he think that she'd be hale, hearthy, bizarrely strong, and fully compos mentis in her 90s? And at the same address?

But she is indeed all of these things, and even more unconvincingly, she seems to have been waiting for years for Kiriakos to appear at her doorstep.

For the next 80 minutes or so, Rose metes out information to Kiriakos at a speed that reflects Dinelaris's desire to (unconvincingly) ratchet up the suspense rather than any recognizable human behavior. She speaks of a curse on the family that seemingly affects Kiriakos himself when his wife nearly loses their baby late in her pregnancy. (Kiriakos's relationship with his wife is also unconvincing, but that's a whole other story.) Rose also beats Kiriakos at arm wrestling, which is an important but ludicrous and unnecessary plot point.

Eventually we get to the big reveal, with all sorts of yelling and acting on the part of Kathleen Chalfant. It's a horrible, grotesque story, but the way that the entire play artificially leads to this moment somehow robs it of its power. More importantly, Rose's so-called sin, the topic of the opening monologue and really the entire play, isn't one. Pushed into a horrendous, incomprehensible corner, she made the decision to save her son's life. What she had to do to save her son was abhorrent and appalling, but she genuinely had no choice.

An exploration of the fact that Rose internalized her behavior as a sin when she was absolutely innocent would have been much more compelling than all of Dinelaris's manufactured mystery. That she then chose to desert her son after saving his life would also be a more interesting focus.

And then we get to bizarre ending, in which Kiriakos smothers Rose with a pillow (embroidered with the name of her lost daughter, no less) to give her the gift of peace after her decades in emotional hell. We are to believe that this is what she wants him to do, and that it will be a way to end the curse on the family, and even a form of redemption.

But why couldn't she have committed suicide, oh, fifty years earlier? Why did she wait for a grandson who might never have shown up to put her out of her misery? Sloppy, unconvincing playwriting is the only answer I can think of.

Other questions: What has Rose been doing for the previous, oh, fifty years? How did she make a living? Why didn't her son, Kiriakos's father, open the other letters? Why did he keep them? Why did he set up this mystery for Kiriakos instead of just talking to him? Again, the answer is: sloppy, unconvincing playwriting.

Red Dog Howls has been in development for some five years. It must have been seen by a range of smart theatre pros at its various workshops, and by the staff at New York Theatre Workshop. Did they all truly find it to be a worthy play?

Or did the topic blind them to the play's many faults?

I wonder.

(press ticket, fourth row center)

1 comment:

Wendy Caster said...

(spoiler) The friend with whom I saw the play pointed out that, in the opening monologue, it is possible that Kiriakos IS talking about himself, referring to the sin of killing his grandmother. I think my friend may have a point, but if that's what the author meant, I think he is overplaying the sinfulness of requested euthanasia. I also don't think that Kiriakos would compare what he did to the enormity of what his grandmother experienced.