Opening this weekend courtesy of Stas & Stas and Ethos Performing Arts is a John Patrick Shanley play that is not Doubt. That’s right, plays by John Patrick Shanley not called Doubt do exist and are sometimes performed apparently. This one doesn’t tackle serious issues although it does feature a small group of characters bent on intense accusations and complete chastisement of those around them. It’s the 1993 farce called Four Dogs and a Bone.
Shanley sets his sights on the Hollywood film industry as he follows a writer, a producer and two rivaling actresses on their journey to getting a feature film made. Money is tight, time is running out, and the two actresses could kill each other (or at the very least, bitch each other out with witty JPS dialogue) at any moment. It’s a simple setup that offers the audience a backstage view of just how maddening deadlines, collaborations and any artistic endeavor can be.
After many of the productions I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing thus far, I’ve noted that the acting has many times enhanced the writing. With Four Dogs, just the opposite is true. The night’s biggest laughs arise from uproarious one-liners that land not because of sensational acting choices, but because the writing itself is so solid.
The play opens in present day New York City in the producer’s office. His name is Bradley and he’s played by Taso Mikroulis. Joining Bradley is the actress Brenda, played by Samantha Strelitz. To put it bluntly, this first scene is all over the place. Not once does it appear that Mikroulis and Strelitz have any intention of actually listening to each other. Not helped by Jennifer Gelfer’s direction, it appears each actor is prepared to say his or her lines out, to the air, without caring at all how it effects the other person on stage. Having selfish characters is fine, that’s right in the script. But having performers who aren’t actively doing a thing to cause a change in anyone or anything is not fine. There is way too much emotional distance between the actors, as if each is monologuing. But this is a play.
I will admit that Mikroulis wins me over as the scene progresses; he does finally utilize different tactics to get the ditzy Brenda to do things for him (i.e. giving him notes from her famous brother-in-law). His slimy charm grows to be endearing. You can picture a stressed-out producer wanting to hurry things along with this actress as he goes about his business -- business which includes changing from a light pink shirt to a dark pink shirt (outstanding costume design) and wiping a sore on his rear end (truth). Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Strelitz. She’s a gorgeous actress but her choices are contrived and sitcomy; Brenda does not once seem like a real person who breathes the air on Planet Earth. A lot of fun could have been had seeing an actress flesh out this character’s tawdry tendencies but Strelitz’s performance is one-note all the way through.
The first scene concludes in a hurried fashion as the actors miss golden opportunities for beat changes. What could have been three distinct moments wraps up in ten seconds and instead the scene change for Scene Two lasts absurdly long (although the music is fabulous -- great choices for every scene change -- I just don’t want to listen to the entire song, you know what I mean? Hurry up and place that glass of wine and that trashcan!).
In Scene Two, we meet Victor the writer and Collette the Other Actress, played by Chase Coleman and Anastasia Morozova respectively. Victor is another interesting character on paper but Coleman’s choices are unmotivated and jumbled. Watch as he goes from ‘dead serious’ to ‘stark raving drunk’ to ‘just kind of tipsy’ to ‘stumbling all over the place’ to ‘sort of giddy’ to ‘just plain bored.' Playing drunk is not an easy feat on stage but the key is: don’t try to play drunk. Coleman is trying way too hard and I don’t buy it. One especially bizarre moment comes when he admits that his mother died yesterday. Coleman plays this moment so overdramatically and without a hint of real emotio that the audience is ready for him to say “Just kidding! Gotcha! My mom’s still alive.” That moment never comes. Yikes.
Similarly, Morozova picks one detail from the script and gooooooooes with it: Talk to Victor like he’s an infant. It becomes grating and like co-star Strelitz, there are missed chances abound to deliver a more nuanced performance. Take for example the funny line “I hate that I can’t take a shotgun and blow your brains out; why is that wrong?” Had Morozova genuinely asked the question “Why is that wrong?” like she really wanted an answer, this could have gotten huge laughs instead of small chuckles. But she yells the whole thing and it, again, appears like monologuing and not actors connecting. But. While underwhelmed by the acting, clever lines keep me involved in the story: “She doesn’t know you.” / “Who does know you.” / “My agent.” Hah! “What do you think I want to be? Somebody’s aunt with cancer… or the lead?!” Score!
The two diva actresses finally appear together in the play’s third scene. While the blocking is effective (they are looking into mirrors - at last, a reason to look out and not at each other!), more subtle jabbing is necessary to create a rousing scene, rather than an all-out cat-fight that has nowhere to go. There is no structure to the scene, no build -- just broad and kitschy bitchiness.
The play concludes with all four characters battling it out in Bradley’s office. Maybe the key to the comedy is getting all four actors on stage at once. There is now a fun sense of desperation that works. We also get a first-class fight sequence, impeccable timing (the high-speed line delivery that is unnecessary in other scenes is very useful here) and jokes that soar. Although she stumbles with some of her words, Samantha Strelitz has her best moments in this scene. Her Brenda becomes relentless in tying up loose ends with the other three characters. Strelitz is amusingly playful as she locks lips with one character and eats numerous pieces of paper the next second. Morozova is more relatable as well. As she tells Brenda she “walks through this movie like Bambi with polio,” she nearly receives an ovation from the audience.
But this successful last scene can’t make up for three lackluster ones that precede it. While the script his many golden moments and the sound/costume designs are flawless, the production feels too small for its huge stage (note to the director: consider pre-setting the set pieces -- the set is so simple!) and the actors fail to create compelling enough characters to sustain the 90-minute running time.