BWW Reviews: FOUR DOGS AND A BONE: Stage and Screen Intersect at Capital Fringe
For an I-want-to-see-everything kind of girl like me, choosing shows to see during a festival such as Capital Fringe can be downright painful (in a good way). Titles become very important in winnowing a list of 135 shows, so when I saw the title Four Dogs and a Bone, it suggested so many intriguing possibilities, that I had to investigate further. And then, there it was, the one piece of information I needed to go directly to "yes"-the playwright is John Patrick Shanley. Shanley is probably best known for his 2005 Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play Doubt, about accusations of child molestation against a priest at a Catholic elementary school in the 1960s. That play challenged me theatrically, and was a riveting, deeply human story. The most recent Shanley play was one of 2014's Tony nominees: Outside Mullingar, a poignant, and wildly funny tale of the unexpected obstacles life can place in the way of love; and a play that includes one of my very favorite scenes ever between a father and a son. John Patrick Shanley creates characters you think you might know...or be.
Four Dogs and a Bone is a 1993 play in which Shanley takes on Hollywood...the Hollywood in which all manner of egos dwell, their very existence dependent on a symbiosis that can bring out the most desperate and grasping elements in those involved.
The premise drops us in the middle of the making of a film of indeterminate story (someone named Joe may or may not die at the end is about all we know), with its ineffective and grasping producer; an unseen, but much talked about director; the hard-drinking, seemingly adrift screenwriter, and two venomous lead actresses, each trying to connive the other out of the film. The potential for verbal mayhem in the shifting alliances is rich, and this is a play completely dependent on flawless comedic timing, and a mastery of the script.
I applaud the efforts of the director, Kevin Sockwell, and his four-person cast, who was clearly game for anything, for embracing the brash and crass humor with enthusiasm, and creating memorable characters. However, I found that any scene that didn't include Anne Vandercook as Brenda, the neurotic first-time actress teetering just this side of sanity, tended to fall flat. Brenda spends her time hilariously chanting and scheming her way to success, and Vandercook is the unquestionable high point and linchpin of the show. Her timing is excellent, getting laughs merely by widening her eyes at just the right moment, and flashing from seeming madness to evil genius in an instant.
Dylan Knewstub, as Victor, also had some great moments, delusional in holding out hope for an uncut script and a "Disney picture," and trying with some comedic success, to fend off the sexual advances and professional scheming of Collette, the aging actress, who is determined to have her way with him, and his script. His was the most passive and relatable character in the midst of a bevy of caricatures, and he played it just right, proving that laughs do not require exaggeration.
The direction and casting balanced the less successful performances of Greg Mangiapane as Bradley, the narcissistic, mercenary producer, and Maria Raquel Ott, as Collette, as each was always on stage with either Vandercook or Knewstub. Both Mangiapane and Ott had a tendency to rush lines and swallow punch lines, which detracted from the cleverness of Shanley's writing. Ott, in particular, affected an exaggerated New Jersey accent which I found forced, and I think it hampered her comedic timing. When they did hit their targets though, they got satisfying laughter from the audience, and I couldn't help but think how deliciously entertaining those two characters would be in the hands of more experienced actors.
The team handled the tiny space, and need to re-stage each scene in full view of the audience, with impressive ease, and the musical accompaniment during the set changes was well done. Fewer busy props, and a bit less furniture on stage might have been preferable; so much of the delight in a Shanley play is in the words and souls of the characters, rather than in elaborate settings.
We can often overlook the importance of the creative work of sound and lighting design, but this production demonstrated how important it can be; especially to an otherwise minimal production. From the opening moments, in which Brenda has the literal (and metaphorical) spotlight all to herself, sitting on a chair facing the audience and spinning a tale of a dramatically tragic childhood (to the audience? or to the shadowy figure at the desk behind her?), to the ending spotlight on Victor, the screenwriter, eyes glinting as he gets his first real taste of control, the lighting was well planned and executed.
I give this cast and creative team a great deal of credit for taking on this challenging show. The director's note said that they had fun during rehearsals, and that came through in their performance. Most importantly, it was a great showcase for Anne Vandercook. I left the theater feeling quite satisfied for having experienced her comic mastery.
For tickets, and to find out more about Four Dogs and a Bone, and the many other Capital Fringe options at the festival website: https://www.capitalfringe.org/festival-2014/shows/362-four-dogs-and-a-bone