Story: Paul and Julianne have a problem. Their 3-year-old German Shepherd dog, Carrot, is overly aggressive with Paul and, to a lesser extent, their teen daughter Brittany. Paul has the bandages to prove it when he answers the door to their posh Florida residence to welcome Vadislav.
The latter calls himself a “canine relations specialist,” and he is the last hope for the couple in seeking a solution to Carrot’s menacing behavior. Vadislav is eccentric enough not to tell them how long his session will last (“When it’s done, it’s done”) or what it will cost (“We’ll discuss that later”). He seems to know his subject, though, pointing out that Carrot is not a purebred but a Shepherd mix. He also says that he needs all family members present to interrogate them as a group before he even addresses Carrot, whom the family adopted from a shelter when he was a year old.
Paul welcomes this odd but informed intruder, while Julianne views him with skepticism and some contempt. As Vadislav analyzes the couple and their own relationship, his direct but evasive answers to their numerous questions lead to increasing uneasiness about who he is exactly and what he plans to do.
Highlights: William Roth, founder and producing director of St. Louis Actors’ Studio, was highly impressed with playwright Daniel Damiano’s two-act “comedy” when he finally read it after receiving it unsolicited a couple of years back. Artistic director Milton Zoth agreed with Roth about the work’s potential and now is directing the world premiere performance of this script that is both highly humorous and suspenseful.
Damiano proves adept at building tension and creating characters who continue to develop throughout the play’s two hours of performance time in a fashion that is both satisfying and surprising.
Other Info: Zoth maintains a steady sense of pace that, coupled with Damiano’s dialogue, keeps a viewer off-kilter and uncertain in which direction the story is moving. He’s aided by the expert portrayals of his trio of players, who each inhabit their character with a richness that becomes more apparent as the drama develops.
The coldly clinical and static set designed by Christie Johnston, including her scenic painting of the walls, is accentuated by an array of appropriate vases, knickknacks and accoutrements courtesy of props designer Lisa Beke. That set, chiseled out of the cozy Gaslight Theater stage, starkly conveys the rigid, controlling personality of Julianne, an interior designer who has steadily become the ‘alpha male’ in this household as Paul struggles with his own career failures.
Teresa Doggett’s costumes smartly match each character, dressing Julianne in a chic, purposeful dress, Paul in comfortable preppie attire and Vadislav in a blazer and slacks that seem thrown together as haphazardly as his thoughts. Zoth adds a poignantly melancholy soundtrack and Jonathan Zelezniak provides lighting.
Tamara Kenny is steely and slick and domineering and frigidly controlling as Julianne, attributes that at first seem off-putting and needlessly confrontational until we learn more about her past. Julianne also has an odd penchant for addressing her husband by name in nearly every sentence she utters, a personality quirk that underscores her abrasive behavior.
Kenny is convincing throughout as she etches a clear vision of a woman who has made the most of her dual college majors of interior designing and philosophy and pulled herself up from a series of lifetime disappointments.
As Paul, Steve Isom depicts the uncertainty and defensiveness of a man who reveals to the inquisitive Vadislav that he wanted to be a chef but has ended up instead as an accountant in his father’s small firm. Isom is wholly believable as Paul steadily retreats from the commands his wife barks at him and equally compelling as his character reveals some particularly troublesome facts.
The play, however, really belongs to Jason Grubbe as the mysterious interloper, Vadislav. Grubbe can be very, very good delineating his character’s eccentricities in disarming fashion, and his cell phone’s Who Let the Dogs Out? ring tone is an amusing schtick. His thick Russian accent is matched by a marvelously rhythmic cadence with the character’s staccato and straightforward responses that is at once disarming and intriguing. Unfortunately, he fumbled many lines in one weekend performance that tended to mar an otherwise fascinating depiction.
Damiano’s script surprises with its affecting and compelling start and richly rewarding climax, although it gets ponderous and overly melodramatic in the second act. Still, he’ll keep you guessing who has the Carrot and who has the stick in this clever and beguiling mystery.
Play: Day of the Dog
Group: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: March 14, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 23, 24
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb