*published on 23 Sept 2012 on The Edge
The New York Theatre Workshop’s new season bows with the well-wrought, yet deeply disturbing new play“Red Dog Howls,” written by Alexander Dinelaris and directed by Ken Rus Schmoll. The plot follows Michael Kiriakos, a newly married writer, played with controlled pathos and edgy touches of humor by Alfredo Narciso. Michael finds a box of old letters while cleaning up after the death of his father. The box, Pandora style, leads to the unearthing of family secrets.
Michael’s digging propels him to the Washington Heights apartment of Rose, who it turns out is his grandmother. I will not untie any more knots because the terse 90-minute play relies on the periodic untying and retying of familial and historic threads. But, I will say that Rose is played with inspiring commitment, to character and content by Kathleen Chalfant. Chalfant turns in a truly bravura performance, one that will no doubt garner her new and much deserved awards.
In the program we see that “Red Dog Howls” went through extensive script iterations before opening the 2012 NYTW season, and the play has benefited from the time spent in development.
Dinelaris’ script is clean, well written and there are not extraneous journeys to detract us from the often-untold story of the Armenian genocide and the horrifying personal affects of that holocaust. Michael’s wife Gabby brings freshness to the otherwise heavy script by using her pregnancy to highlight the passage of time and transfer of generational information.
In the tradition of “Sophie’s Choice,” Dinelaris gives us one woman’s dilemma, which then resonates as universal, thanks to the incredible, ensemble acting and the clear direction of Ken Rus Schmoll. However, as with material this charged, there are moments when the production veers toward maudlin. The story, taken from the extreme realities of the 1915 attempted eradication of the Armenians by the Turks, is in reality over-wrought and tragic.
Sitting in the audience one cannot help but be drawn to the chronicles of modern day horrors unfolding in the Middle East, and Africa. We have not learned that eliminating a population or suppressing their freedoms will never yield positive results. And yet it continues.
The play allows us to be brought in slowly to the story of the Greek, Armenian, Italian and now Americans populating the stage. This methodical unfolding allows the work to culminate in a grizzly, explicit fashion. The simple, set by Marsha Ginsberg, further enhances the theater on Fourth Street with its open stage that always encourages voyeurism. The lights, by Tyler Micoleau and the costumes by Jane Shaw all add to the sense that we could or might know these very people.
“Red Dog Howls” is not a romp or a mindless night to escape; it is a serious work presented with three top drawer actors giving it their all. As an aside, one might eat before attending, as after, you may just want to digest what you have seen and heard.
“Red Dog Howls” runs through October 14 at the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4 Street, between Bowery and Second Avenue. For info or tickets, call 877-487-2713 or visit www.nytw.org.