Stray Dog Hearts
Written by Padraic O’Reilly
Directed by Jennifer Gelfer
Velocity Theatre Company (www.velocitytheatre.org)
Midtown International Theatre Festival (www.midtownfestival.org)
Workshop Theater MainStage, 312 West 36th Street, 4th floor
Equity showcase (through August 5, 2007)
Review by Maura O’Brien
Padraic O’Reilly’s new work, Stray Dog Hearts, currently a part of the Midtown International Theater Festival, is more of a philosophical treatise on the status of art than a play. With language more clever than his characters, and metaphors more significant than plot, O’Reilly manipulates the elements of a comedy to present an example of art selling itself out. Although this sounds distressingly cynical, O’Reilly’s “high concept carnival” is charmingly chaotic, and an engaging formal experiment.
The setting for this meditation on independent art is a publisher’s office on the verge of a sale to an Australian corporate giant named Rollocrush (a likely parallel to the real-life behemoth leader of News Corporation). At first light, Stray Dog Hearts strikes the viewer with its display of office tedium: the booming boss, the squeaky, naïve secretary, and the reliably unreliable coworker. Their daily drama is set against the backdrop of a familiarly drab interior—the set cleverly features one opaque parallelogram that allows light from the unseen world beyond.
The office belongs to Brodsky, a romantic played with un-ironic enthusiasm by Marc Santa Maria. Santa Maria’s wide-eyed expression and confident voice convey the sad complexity of a man too honest to succeed, and too idealistic to make sense in a "prehistoric millennium.” Assisting Brodsky is the similarly wistful Brianna (Rainbow Dickerson), who is about to become a single mother. Their more cynical colleague Lila (Kimberly Bailey) skulks about the office, often drunkenly, telling the others that they are living in a moment that evokes the ruthless time when animals ruled the earth. Lila’s explanation is the start of an extended allegory involving animals, and such observations make her the most entertaining and insightful character. She is the lovely, but disheveled and unruly stray dog that roams in search of love or meaning. Bailey exaggerates Lila’s “freakishness” to produce some of the play’s more hilarious moments. Though she is a total mess, her compositions are affecting.
In the midst of the drama of the takeover, a strange dwarf, with no purpose and no identity, shows up in the office’s waiting room. Playing the harbinger of some vague and unidentified apocalypse, Stephen Jutras is perfectly impish. Though his appearance is initially perceived as a threat, the “waiter” is calm and patient throughout. Jutras neatly balances his benevolent qualities with an omnipresent, all-knowing smirk. While the rest of the characters shout in many harried ways, he is confident and nowhere near as freakish as the chaos around him.
Jennifer Gelfer’s direction ingeniously moves the chaotic action around a fixed pillar, an architectural piece that in its solidness reminds the audience of how much movement occurs. The actors constantly flow into and out of doors, which underscores some of the philosophical observations of the play.
The presence of the dwarf encourages the characters to deal with existential questions and to bend the stranger’s ear, delving into the problems that their idealism and passion have caused. Their attempts to understand his presence parallel their copywriting assignment: to define the subject of a Velazquez painting, who happens to be a dwarf. They stare at the freak in the frame and try to make sense, and we stare at them and their freakishness, trying to do the same.
Once the small company is taken over the identity of the “waiter” is revealed. It is an unsatisfying answer to what had been a tantalizing mystery, but perhaps this is the point. Lacking the mysterious object at which to gaze, or the strange figure to understand, the piece of art loses meaning and power. While the characters perceive that they are moving from light to dark, depressed to happy, failures to successes, in their willingness to sell out they bring the play to its least natural and most senseless conclusion—the stray dog has rolled over. While this reinforces O’Reilly’s point that corporations are deadening enterprises, it still makes for a dull conclusion. Thankfully, the post-takeover action is limited, and the play ends shortly thereafter.
Though the actors offer their best energetic portraits as ideas and archetypes, the play is almost too clever for its own good—the larger idea is more compelling than the action on stage, and the theatrical experience isn’t totally satisfying. However, Mr. O’Reilly’s play is still an intriguing example of a way to avoid Aussification…er, ossification.
Copyright 2007 Maura O’Brien
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