Watch out, Dallas—you’ve found your next big theater star. His shining black hair, sleek physique, incredible stage presence, and ability to immediately win over an audience make him nothing short of irresistible. I’m referring, of course, to Buddy, the titular dog in Undermain Theatre’s production of David Rabe’s The Dog Problem. Though he only appears in one scene, Buddy makes an impact (as live animals onstage tend to do). Don’t get me wrong; the cast and crew contribute with stellar acting, inspired set design, and on-target direction. But all that nearly takes a backseat when there’s an adorable pooch taking his bow (wow?) at curtain call.
Written in 2000, right in the middle of The Sopranos mobster-mania, The Dog Problem presents us with an easily offended family of gangsters and the unlucky fellows who get mixed up with them. Ribald, snappy, and often laugh-out-loud funny, Rabe’s script dips its toe into the deep end of offensive without ever diving all the way in. That’s good, because any play that has the contemplation of offing a dog for nothing more than the crime of being a dog as its primary plot device could easily turn off sympathetic and squeamish ticket holders.
Ingeniously working within Undermain’s renovated and reconfigured performance space are seven (eight if you count Buddy) actors who never waver in their commitment to making compelling choices. Surrounded by the action in a way that never feels forced or trite—thanks to John Arnone’s immersive set design—we are transported to gritty Little Italy, complete with oversized billboards and convenient dumpsters. The actors envelop us in their spot-on New York accents, tawking rat-a-tat-tat about revenge, relationships, and the afterlife while fingering their handguns with practiced confidence.
The crux of the “dog problem” lies with Teresa, a one-night-stand who becomes overly freaked out when her partner’s dog leaps into bed with them. After running to her brother Joey, an aspiring Mafioso, Teresa demands that the man, Ray, pay dearly for this involuntary kinkiness—either he or the dog must die, and it’s Ray’s choice. Enter Ronnie, a slightly slow man with self-professed psychic abilities; Malvolio, Joey’s wheelchair-bound Mafia don uncle; and Tommy, Uncle Mal’s brutish bodyguard who has a surprising way with words. If this all sounds absurd, it is. But it’s the absurdity that keeps The Dog Problem from drowning in its own wacky conventions, and the ensemble does much to lift it from peculiar to spectacular.
Directed with a sure hand by Katherine Owens, the pacing is quick and the jokes even quicker. Drew Wall especially scores with his portrayal of Ronnie, from his jittery feet and measured syllables to the stilting way he propels himself across the stage. Bruce DuBose and Andrew Aguilar are a perfectly matched couple as Uncle Malvolio and Tommy, and Shannon Kearns-Simmons skillfully avoids the trap of the perpetually annoying lone female character.
The play does veer into more somber patches from time to time, ruminating on life and death with a sudden seriousness and displaying a rather unpleasant example of married life. But just as quickly the staccato dialogue returns and the rapid-fire exchanges draw bellows of laughter. Undermain Theatre is Dallas’s reigning “Best Theater,” as awarded by this very magazine, and with The Dog Problem it’s not hard to see why.
Photo by Ashley Randall for Undermain Theatre