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Sunday, 10 March 2013 22:34

'Day of the Dog' is all bark and no bite

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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The Details

Carrot, the titular canine in Daniel Damiano's "Day of the Dog," the world premiere of which is being presented by St. Louis Actors' Studio, is a German Shepherd mix and the family pet of accountant Paul and interior designer Julianne. He never appears on stage, but his presence--and his problem--are obvious as soon as the lights go up and Paul enters with heavily bandaged arms and hands.

Carrot has already sent Paul to the ER once and is showing no signs of relenting in his hostility. The couple have gone through multiple dog trainers to no avail and are now opening their doors to what appears to be their last chance: the eccentric Vadislav, a “canine relationship specialist” with an inexplicable Russian accent, a love of white albacore tuna salad and vodka, and a penchant for asking penetrating and revealing questions about the family dynamics of Paul, Julianne, and their daughter Brittany (another unseen presence; she’s off at band practice).

As “Day of the Dog” unfolds, it soon becomes apparent that Carrot’s aggression is only a reflection of the emotional battlefield that is Paul and Julianne’s marriage. Julianne was the one who adopted Carrot from the shelter, and now Carrot has taken her side in that war.

That may all sound a bit grim, but “Day of the Dog” doesn’t start out that way. It’s advertised as a comedy and begins as one. Vadislav is a charmingly eccentric and instantly likable character and both Paul and Julianne, while deeply broken people, are clearly redeemable. As the evening progresses, though, Mr. Damiano’s script piles up such a mountain of family dysfunction that the entire business threatens to collapse into a Charles Busch-style heap of absurdity. It stops short, but only just, and well after the endless arguments have become tedious.

The show has problems that go beyond the script, though. Pacing is often slow and scenes don’t seem to have any real emotional variety or shape, so jokes that ought to be funny sometimes fall flat. Blocking is efficient and well motivated, but otherwise director Milt Zoth seems to have worked with a very light hand here.

That said, there are some fine performances in “Day of the Dog,” starting with Jason Grubbe’s Vadislav, a big shaggy sheepdog of a man whose slovenly appearance conversational digressions conceal a shrewd understanding of both canine and human nature. Mr. Grubbe’s portrayal is a classic demonstration of the old adage that much of acting is actually reacting. Vadislav does a lot of reacting, and Mr. Grubbe makes it consistently interesting. His Russian accent is also consistent enough to be credible and light enough to be easily understood. There’s no dialect coach credited, so I assume that’s all his own work.

Steve Isom’s Paul seems a bit bland at first glance, but that turns out to be a smart acting choice. Paul is actually trying to put a brave face on a mix of disappointment, resentment, and fear. Having him start out as superficially affable gives his final explosions that much more impact.

Tamara Kenny’s Julianne is less effective. For most of the play she seems curiously unengaged with the character. She hits her marks and says her lines, but her performance seems to be little more than stock gestures, with little vocal or emotional variety. It has the unfortunate effect of making the character less sympathetic than she might be and tipping the emotional balance in a way that I don’t think the playwright intended.

Technically the show is impeccable. Cristie Johnston’s upscale set displays exactly the sort of exquisite taste you’d expect Julianne to have, and Teresa Doggett’s costumes are a perfect match for the characters. Vadislav’s carrier bag decorated with dog faces is a nice touch as well, although credit for that might go to props designer Lisa Beke.

“Day of the Dog” offers some interesting insights into the human/canine dynamic, and it’s always welcome to see a local professional theatre company taking a chance with new shows. Actors’ Studio has a good track record in that regard and they are to be commended for it. But there are too many credulity-straining plot elements and too much Jerry Springer-ish melodrama in “Day of the Dog” to make it something I can recommend in a crowded theatrical calendar.

“Day of the Dog” runs through March 24th at the Gaslight Theatre on Boyle just north of Lindell.  For more information: stlas.org

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