September 26, 2012

"Red Dog Howls": Bravura Acting Gives it Bite

Red Dog Howls, which opened at the New York Theatre Workshop this week, isn’t a well-made play.  It has no real conflict. Crucial bits of information are held back in a strained effort to manufacture suspense. And the narrative depends far too much on the exposition that one character, repeatedly standing center stage, delivers directly to the audience. But, despite all of that, it is still an affecting piece of work. 

Much of that is due to the fact that Alexander Dinelaris’ play deals with the legacy of the Armenian Genocide in which soldiers of the Ottoman Empire massacred over 1 million people between 1915 and 1923. But it draws even more of its power from a searing performance by Kathleen Chalfant.

The plot of this three-hander centers around the relationship between Chalfant’s character, a 91-year old recluse named Rose, and a thirtysomething writer named Michael, played by Alfredo Narciso. His father has just died and he and his wife Gabriella (Florencia Lozano) are just about to have their first child. A mysterious legacy from his father leads Michael to believe that Rose, a woman he’s never met before, holds the key to a secret in his family’s past.

As I said, it’s all a bit strained but director Ken Rus Schmoll has given Red Dog Howls a streamlined production that keeps the focus tightly on the interaction between Rose and Michael. And that is a good thing because Rose is a show horse role for older actresses, who get so few chances to strut their stuff.

And Chalfant, a thoroughbred talent who has been with the play since its first reading in 2007, doesn’t miss a step. Her Rose is a deft mix of chicken-soup coziness and dry-wit crankiness. Then, just as Michael—and the audience—is getting comfortable with her, she breaks into the anguishing aria that is the whole point of the play. 

Although Red Dog Howls runs just 90 minutes, I had been somewhat restless up until then.  But as Chalfant howled, I hung on to every word.

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