Red Dog Howls
El Portal Theatre
Even though in my mind there’s undoubtedly more and consistently better theatre presented on a regular basis in Los Angeles than in New York, it’s still a rarity that a play with definite plans for a Broadway run germinates in our city, something many recent productions transferring there from here have even avoided mentioning in their marketing campaigns. Whatever the reasons Alexander Dinelaris’ Red Dog Howls is currently gracing the stage of the El Portal, we should all be grateful to have a chance to see it unfold in this impressive early incarnation and, especially, to have the amazing opportunity to watch the work of Kathleen Chalfant in what might be the best performance in her celebrated and dedicated life spent enriching the American theatre.
Red Dog Howls is set in 1986 and Chalfant plays Vartouhi Afratian, a 91-year-old survivor of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, long living alone in a tiny apartment in Washington Heights where she has resided for over 60 years, completely isolated from her family and, it seems, from much of the rest of the world. When her son dies, her unsuspecting grandson Michael (Matthew Rauch) discovers a hidden packet of letters from Vartouhi written to his father and, for the first time, he realizes his grandmother is not dead, as he has always been told.
Under the direction of Michael Peretzian, Dinelaris’ fascinating Equus-y mystery begins to unfold after the young man ventures a visit to the woman who had clandestinely corresponded with his father, someone more than willing to feed him endless bowls of homemade soup and play board games with him on a daily basis for the next several months, but still unwilling to help him unravel the haunting questions about who she is, why she’s living there in such complete anonymity and segregation from her family, or what horrors she has gone through in her early years that she is still unwilling to discuss so many years later.
The mind-numbing answers eventually do surface and the horrific intricacies of Vartouhi’s silence are revealed, but not without leaving the audience collectively reduced to audible tears and exiting the theatre in shocked, zombie-like silence. Red Dog Howls is not for the faint of heart, but it’s a story that needs telling and a play that, in a fairer world, should become a significant piece of theatrical literature.
This is not to say Dinelaris’ play is without need for minor rewriting before hitting the road to the Big Apple, but the negligible tweaking that’s in order is nowhere near as essential as telling this riveting real-life story of man’s inhumanity to man—and to do so, let’s hope the producers can keep this particularly dynamic cast in place for the journey. In the hands of lesser actors, Tom Buderwitz’ charming old world set could easily be struck and Red Dog Howls forgotten right here in ol’ North Hollywood on June 13. Peretzian’s remarkably capable cast—Chalfant, Rauch and Darcie Siciliano as Michael’s pregnant wife Gabriella—employ their considerable talents and subtle craft to render the play’s dodgier moments as inconsequential, each offering a textbook example of the subtle art of acting at its most admirable.
More than rewriting, what the play needs is some judicious paring down, with Michaels’ many monologues delivered directly to the audience simplified and interpreted in a more conversational, less preachy manner. Much of the problem could also be in the direction, which leaves the brilliant Mr. Rauch so often alone out there at the lip of the stage bathed in a single bright light, delivering his lines without a critical eye to help him decide which of the overabundance of Michael’s many personal revelations bared in his speeches could be deemed less important. There is a certain spontaneity missing here, an absence of the sense that Michael is discovering himself right along with his audience, leaving many of these moments feeling more Shakespearean than they need to be.
I would also, were I directing, leave Rauch in place for his “memory” moments within the just-completed scenes, simply turning out to the audience rather then repeatedly stepping down into that overused dreaded spotlight. As long as the other characters are often left seated quietly behind Rauch as he transcends his reminiscences and delves into his experiences for us, this would so improve the flow of the piece and, more urgently, take away from the theatricality that distracts us from the story rather than pull us into it.
Still, these are small quibbles. What Red Dog Howls offers us in its short run here is a chance to check it out before it goes on to win major awards as it finds its place in New York theatre history and, above all, to revel in the unearthly wonder that is Kathleen Chalfant, surely our country’s finest and most consistently engaging stage actor. I’ve been around for a lotta years now and, without exaggeration, the work of this woman, from her Obie-winning performance in Wit to her Tony-nominated turn in the original Angels in America to Honour at Berkeley Rep to Talking Heads here at the Tiffany before its heralded New York run, has consistently offered me some the most indelible and inspirational theatrical experiences of my lifetime.
Red Dog Howls plays through June 13 at the El Portal, 5269 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood, CA; for tickets, call 818.508.4200