Howling its Message, Red Dog Falls Short of Perfection
Despite the heavy topic—the Armenian genocide of 1915 might not seem like material for a casual comedy—Red Dog Howls opens looking much like a sitcom. Michael Kiriakos (Alfredo Narciso) spends a second on stage in dramatic lighting addressing the audience about crimes that can't be forgiven, and then immediately the scene whiplashes into domestic arguments between him and his wife, Gabriella (Florencia Lozano). The scene, and just about every other scene between the spouses, feels artificial. Lozano and Narciso have no chemistry, which seems to be less the fault of the actors and more that of the playwright. Although Gabriella is presented as a loving, caring wife, she never has even one scene where she doesn't fight with or yell at Michael. Michael even delivers a monologue at one point attesting to how much she loves him and how great of a partner she is, which is immediately subverted by her attacking him, criticizing him, and in general being a very unlikable and shallow character. As the play delves further and further into Michael's past and his relationship with Rose Afratian (Kathleen Chalfant), Gabriella fades more into the background, culminating in her quite literally spending the entirety of the second act unconscious in a hospital bed. It is through Rose Afratian, a ninety-one-year-old survivor of the Armenian genocide, that Michael discovers his own past, culture, and the deep pain that can be passed down through generations. Watching Michael interact with Rose, is wonderful in contrast to his interactions with Gabriella.
If the play's main weakness is Gabriella's almost nonexistent and wholly irritating role, its main strength is the powerful, evocative relationship between the other two characters, Michael Kiriakos and his long-lost Armenian grandmother, Rose Afratian. Michael is a classic example of the "everyman" character. It's easy for a character who is supposed to stand in for the audience to be hollow; but Alfredo Narciso gracefully elicits the audience’s positive reaction, by learning and growing with them. Narciso explores Rose's story and the story of his own character's past along with the audience. At the same time, he plays Michael, a deeply likable, earnest human being with a personality, motivations, and a history of his own.
Rose herself is, of course, the star of the show. Kathleen Chalfant is without a doubt one of the best stage actresses of the modern day, and saying that she brings Rose Afratian to life is an understatement. She is Rose Afratian: a fragile, majestic, broken woman who loves her long-lost grandson unconditionally, feeds him endless bowls of pilaf and soup, defeats him in an arm wrestling match, and won't tell him why she vanished without a trace more than sixty years before. She dominates every scene in which she appears, and exudes such incredible power, as a character and as a person, that it's impossible not to look towards her as Michael does, with awe, even worship, and deep filial love. When she prays over Gabriella’s hospital bed, when she tells Michael he must be strong, when she dances with him on Easter before the birth of his child, it is impossible not to love her. At the play's climax, when Rose finally reveals what happened to her sixty years before, all her power culminates in one of the most wrenching, tragic performances in theater today.
Despite the superb acting, watching Red Dog Howls provides the odd experience of watching a trio of very strong, very skilled, and even brilliant actors wrestle with material that doesn't measure up. Aside from the problem of Lozano's shallow character and overall irrelevance, Chalfant and Narciso's powerful acting is subverted by less-than-excellent plotting and writing on the part of the playwright. Narciso is periodically made to deliver stilted and overdramatic narrations of what is going on, often spelling out questions the audience is apparently judged too stupid to ask for themselves. ("Why doesn't she eat meat?" hints Michael to the audience, after Rose has, repeatedly and pointedly, refused to eat meat.) The set is interesting and artistic, consisting of the two apartments, Michael’s and Rose’s, on one stage, with only an implied separation between them. The lighting is emphatic and sets the mood, and the music is fitting to each scene. However, because the play gives off the continuous impression of trying too hard to be a masterpiece, the very artistic and original qualities that set the scene end up feeling clumsy and contrived, as if the playwright, when giving stage directions, constantly wrote in notes in the margins addressing the audience – “Hey! Look at my clever set! It emphasizes the lack of separation between past and future. Aren’t I clever?”
The subject of the Armenian genocide is a devastating, powerful one in and of itself, and the play's often heavy-handed attempts to inject even more drama ultimately undermine its message. Aside from the contrived arguments between Michael and Gabriella, and Michael's unnecessary, backlit monologues about red dogs howling in the desert, a shocking plot twist at the very end ruins the play’s power and credibility. The end completely destroys the beautiful, subtle relationship between Michael and Rose with some unnecessary, contrived violence that comes out of left field and leaves the audience shocked — and not in a good way.
Despite the shoddy writing, however, it cannot be overstated that the play as a whole, aside from the issues mentioned above, is excellent. The strong points are the character of Rose and her relationship with her grandson, and the majority of the play itself revolves around just those things. It says something about the power of Chalfant and Narciso's performance that despite the deeply flawed nature of the script, Red Dog Howls as a whole manages to be one of the most evocative, wrenching, beautiful pieces of theater I have ever experienced.
New York Theatre Workshop presents Alexander Dinelaris' Red Dog Howls, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll. Scenic design by Marsha Ginsberg; constume design by David C. Woolard; lighting design by Tyler Micoleau; sound design and original music by Jane Shaw. Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith.