Review - Red Dog Howls
Sophie's choice was a casual coin flip compared with decision forced upon a young mother in Alexander Dinelaris' drama recalling the Ottoman Empire's Armenian genocide, Red Dog Howls. As a 91-year-old grandmother enduring life with the memory of a horrific confrontation with three sadistic Turks, Kathleen Chalfant gives an extraordinarily convincing performance balancing pain and dark humor, climaxing with an agonizing scene where she reveals a sickening secret. But Chalfant's performance, certainly worth remembering when award season comes along, is all the production has to recommend.Set in 1980s New York, the heavy-handed text begins with a writer named Michael (Alfredo Narciso) informing us that, "There are sins, from which we can never be absolved. Sins, so terrible, so... unimaginable, that if, or when, we finally acknowledge the depths of our complicity, we will be changed forever."
By the evening's end we've discovered the nature of his sin, as Michael narrates a tale from his recent past involving a cryptic message left to him by his now deceased father and the discovery of a grandmother he thought had passed on long ago.
Chalfant's Rose is a crusty, old world sort who feels compelled to pass on her Armenian heritage and family history to the stranger who turns out to be her grandson, but only at a proper pace and never mentioning the grave secret until he's ready.
Florencia Lozano plays Michael's pregnant wife, Gabby, whose presence is more symbolic than dramatic.
Director Ken Rus Schmoll's production is filled with stilted pauses and Chalfant is the only actor who finesses around the sluggish staging, but the play itself, with its declarative, fact-filled narration and thin characters, is the primary reason the evening is emotionally empty.
Before the comedy boom of the 1980s began dotting New York and every other major American city with clubs devoted exclusively to showcasing stand-ups, comedians worked primarily between sets at music venues or at random comedy nights at bars and restaurants. And while the emergence of burlesque as a form of female-empowered entertainment where men and women both cheerfully whoop it up for their favorite ecdysiasts is still only an occasional feature of variously appointed venues, I do think we're heading in a direction where before the end of this decade we'll be seeing the emergence of burlesque clubs - much like today's Comedy Clubs and jazz clubs - providing nightly opportunities for good, clean, non-judgmentally positive body image fun.Reinforcing that notion is The Metropolitan Room's twice-monthly hosting of The Sophisticates; the popular destination for Gershwin and Porter enthusiasts opening its doors to the strip-tease set for their late-night hi-jinks.
Bastard Keith, a smarmy gadabout throwback to the days when bad boys were the well-dressed intellectuals in glasses who quipped irreverently ("There's a lot of music that speaks to me, and as a Jew, the most inspirational is the black spiritual."), hosts the evening with a little song and a little friendly audience bonding. ("I'd say 'no homo' but that would be inherently dishonest.")
Joining Mr. Keith as co-producer is Madame Rosebud, an accomplished writer of sexual issues and self-identified guerilla feminist who sheds layers of her Red ensemble like delicate flower petals. Although all the music used in The Sophisticates is recorded, the grand piano remains on stage (Those things are expensive to move.) and Ms. Rosebud grandly hopped atop it for some delightful pinup poses, finishing with a move that I strongly suspect was the reason the show was once kicked out of The Plaza Hotel.
Every performance features a new lineup of guest stars and I was happy to see The Maine Attraction, a performer who has sufficiently dazzled me in the past, on the bill when I attended. It may be a cliché to say a woman of color who dances in an outfit suggesting La Revue Nègre has a bit of Josephine Baker in her, but Ms. Attraction, though certainly of her own style, exudes the same kind of frenetic comic energy that first earned the chanteuse-to-be the title of Highest Paid Chorus Girl In Vaudeville. She acts out routines with the skill of a silent movie clown (in one bit she appears to have swallowed her glove) and stops the show when jiving to "Sing, Sing, Sing" upside down with legs akimbo.
Bettina May, a willowy-armed Canadian with curly Red locks and a big wholesome smile, demonstrated how her fan-dancing skills helped earn her a green card as an "alien of extraordinary ability" and Kristina Nekyia displayed wondrous flexibility in her East Indian-inspired routines. Stage kitten Delysia LaChatte found enticing ways to ensure the stage remained spotless after each performance.
Though the sightlines of The Metropolitan Room may not be ideal for burlesque (head-to-toe visuals being so much more important for this sort of thing than for singing Rodgers and Hart) the dancers all compensated by bringing the fun out into the house, sometimes making for special moments with select audience members. Let's just say The Cast of Hair never quite connected with their fans so intimately.
Photo: Madame Rosebud and Bastard Keith.