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What Dogs Do

by Kristin Johnsen-Neshati

Depending on how society sees us, there are jokes we can get away with telling, and those we can't. Chris Stezin's play What Dogs Do shows how much trouble a straight playwright, Darryl, can get into when he writes a "gay play" under the name of his gay friend, Martin. The ruse starts as a bet between two best friends over the question of whether political correctness really limits artistic freedom. It quickly spins out of control as Darryl sees his work take off -- for the first time -- but without his name on it.

The connection between authorship and identity is a theme well worth examining in comedy. The play suggests some of the effects Darryl's deception has on the central relationships in his life, and Martin, who naively agrees to go along with his buddy's bad idea, suffers consequences too, but with a lighter burden of guilt. The play's humor ranges from forced, puerile comedy to genuine wit. Billed as a challenge to political correctness, What Dogs Do really doesn't go that far. Instead of criticizing society for its superficial hero worship, or other characters (such as Darryl's girlfriend, Stephanie) for their responses to professional success -- or lack thereof -- the play leaves the blame largely with Darryl. With revisions, the playwright may succeed in tightening the comedy and cutting several minutes from the ending. A subsequent production might also strive to make the journey less inevitable. A computer swap, for instance, telegraphs how the plot will be discovered. Most important, the play would benefit from closer study of the compromises each character makes -- good or bad -- to better his or her own circumstances. If the playwright's intention is to take on political correctness and its sacred cows, Chris Stezin won't let his characters off so easily in a later draft.

Keith Bridges's directing is clean and fluid, with varied use of the space both on- and off-stage. The actors usually have something interesting to do, often centered on the task of fixing up Darryl's house. Occasionally the stage business becomes distracting (with the hanging of a light fixture that upstages the actor). Sometimes it's implausible, such as when the chatty character, Robert, silently begins meditating in the same room where Darryl and Martin are discussing their plot. It's difficult to believe Robert, who craves attention, would tune out of their conversation so conveniently. Overall, however, the directing serves the production, allowing audiences to see the play in a simple, unadorned form.

Christopher Lane (Darryl) plays the likable "bigoted" man of letters, who (in spite of his claims) seems more like a closet liberal. Lane's comedic style is broader than the demands of this small comedy confined to a smaller space, but he makes fine use of the play's sober moments, matching his energy to that of his scene partners. Chris Stezin (Martin) brings remarkable ease to his role, playing his scenes with humor and apparent naivete. Ray Ficca (Robert) enlivens his exchanges with excellent timing and surly cattiness. Rachel Gardner (Stephanie) appears sweet and self-centered, occasionally belting Darryl with blasts of indignation without disturbing her clear conscience. Dennis A. Dulmage (Mr. Sanders) plays a walking worst-case scenario whose curmudgeonly intrusions, though predictable, bring well-timed laughs.

Maura McGinn's costumes and the production team's design aptly serve the play without distracting the audience from the actors' delivery of the text. Charter Theatre's intimate space (at NCDA) offers playwright and audience an appropriate venue to experience a new work on its feet for the first time.

What Dogs Do
by Chris Stezin
Directed by Keith Bridges
With Christopher Lane, Chris Stezin, Ray Ficca, Rachel Gardner, and Dennis A. Dulmage
Production design by Keith Bridges, Thom Seymour, Chris Stezin, Richard Washer and Dayana Yochim
Costumes by Maura McGinn
A production of Charter Theatre
National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, 1556 Wisconsin Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20007
(202) 333-7009 or visit
Opening: January 8, 2003, closing: January 26, 2003 Performances WED - SUN @ 8; with SAT matinees @ 3; tickets are pay-what-you-can. Reviewed by Kristin Johnsen-Neshati based on the 1/17/03 performance.
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