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A CurtainUp Review
The Dog Problem
by Les Gutman
For those who equate Rabe with the hard edge of his Vietnam plays -- The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones and Streamers -- for which he, rightly, is best known, The Dog Problem will come as something of a surprise. It's wickedly funny, similar in tone to Rabe's Hollywood comedy-drama, Hurlyburly. As there, it's a "guy" show -- its parallels to Atlantic Theater's founder David Mamet are manifest -- with Mafia connections and betrayal among supposed friends as an instigating force. It also marginalizes its lone female character, Teresa (Andrea Gabriel), although that doesn't prevent Ms. Gabriel from delivering a fine performance.
Ray's problem started when he slept with Teresa, and his dog jumped in bed with them. After she reports this kinky menage á trois to Joey, her brother, he decides to rough Ray up a bit, enlisting Ray's street buddy Ronnie (Joe Pacheco) to help him get to Ray. But the thick between the ears Joey is a lousy bruiser, and ends up letting Ray off the hook without even a hint of the essential groveling -- in hindsight, he even thinks Ray may have been gloating. To correct matters, he turns to his Uncle Malvolio (Victor Argo), an ailing Mafia don now in a wheelchair. Uncle Mal has them bring Ray before him whereupon, after eliciting the facts (in one of the play's most hysterical scenes), he decides to test Ray's mettle, announcing -- Solomonically -- that someone must die for this act -- either the man or his dog -- and that Ray must make the decision.
Before Ray makes his decision, he has a nice long visit with the canine. Yes, there is a real, live one on stage, and his performance is masterful. His name is Buddy and we can only hope his performance lingers long enough that the Obie judges (or perhaps the Drama Desk voters) will find it in their hearts to award him a special citation. He deserves it. Buddy's Playbill bio, by the way, lists Tramp, Benji and Robert DiNiro as his inspirations.
The remainder of the performances are almost as good. Clarke and Pacheco make a fine comic pair, along the lines of an understated Jackie Gleason and Art Carney; Argo cuts his own path as the cantankerous wise guy, pissed off at his health problems, who gets many of Rabe's best lines; and the aforementioned Gabriel, the more-or-less innocent young woman with a rough-hewn outer borough sensibility. Also right on target is Tony Cucci as Mal's bodyguard/lieutenant/nurse; he easily could have been plucked right out of the platoon of bouncers I used to walk past in front of Scores, John Gotti's fancy strip club in the shadow of the Queensborough Bridge.
Although Dog Problem is quite successful as comedy -- the audience certainly gets plenty of laughs -- Rabe seems to have something more in mind. What exactly that is, however, is incomprehensible. Having expanded the play from the one-act that played in Williamstown during the summer before last (review linked below), he opens the second act with a surprise, soon followed by a second, subsidiary one. Neither develops into anything. He also has a priest (Robert Bella) lurking around, but despite a couple of confessions (one successful, the other not), it's hard to identify his purpose. Nothing he says (or that's said in the play's final, oddly lyrical, scene) tells us much of anything. I suppose it's hard for a playwright with a reputation for seriousness to walk away from a comedy without trying to make a point. Next time I hope Rabe gives it a try. LINKS
CurtainUp's Berkshires review of Corner, an earlier one act version of this play, also directed by Scott Ellis and also featuring Joe Pacheco and Victor Argo)