William Roth has done a really wonderful thing for St. Louis with his renovation of a block of buildings and creation of both the Gaslight Theater and St. Louis Actors’ Studio. The latest production is one more indication of how much attention we should be paying to the little theater on Boyle Street.
One of the most important social things little kids have to learn is the privacy divide between their family and everyone else. Their teachers also have to learn to keep quiet about secrets toddlers reveal, unless it sounds like someone might get hurt. In The Day of the Dog someone is getting hurt. The father is repeatedly bitten by their large dog, as his bandaged arms reveal. All previous animal behavior management professionals have failed. Now they have a mysterious, foreign sounding, slightly repulsive yet highly sought after expert to take a last try by relentlessly penetrating their privacy.
The expert focuses not on the dog, but on those that interact with the dog. The perfect family unravels all too quickly, with the main culprit being the business-successful, chilly wife, expertly played by Tamara Kenny. As you might guess, I’m no fan of anything that suggests that successful women are bad for families, but that is not the point in this excellent play. Instead it is about how hard it is to communicate even with those that are closest to us, and how easy it is to lose the spark of family in the thrill of the outer world. OK, that may not seem like a new theme, but there are no new themes. This one is very well done. We never see two important characters, the dog, and the daughter, which adds to the dramatic tension. What is the dog really like? Does the daughter want to play the oboe, or not? What is anyone really like? What do any of us really want to do?
The device of the mysterious stranger is one I just saw in The Mountaintop, which just closed at the Black Rep. In both plays, we slowly learn about the outsider, just as we learn about the target of the intervention. But in this case the stranger is not as strange as he might seem, which leads me to my major technical complaint about the play (not the performance). Children raised in countries that are foreign to their parents invariably pick up the accents of their peers, not their parents, something well known by linguists and anecdotally experienced by any one who has lugged children across linguistic lines.
As past president of the Animal Behavior Society, I’m always delighted to see behavior in theater. At our meeting in Albuquerque last June, we spent a lot of time considering the issue of certifying animal behaviorists so they could claim expertise in animal behavior modification. But what does and does not work in behavior modification does not matter for the success of this play. Certainly dogs detect human interactions. The playwright, Daniel Damiano, stayed well away from the details of this difficult field, except to include the difficulty of changing the behavior of adult dogs, something I can affirm is correct.
Enough of these factual issues. I’ve talked more about the play than about the performance, which was superb, just what I’ve come to expect from director Milton Zoth. I loved the set. It so well reflected the chilly wife, meeting the standards of affluence. Steve Isom was excellent as the hapless husband with business problems who couldn’t even keep from sickening people with the thing he loved: cooking. Jason Grubbe as the psychologist masquerading as an animal behaviorist struck a perfect balance of tenacity and willingness to depart as he skillfully brought the family’s secrets out. Tamara Kenny was perhaps best of all as she both revealed how she saw things, and let the audience see what she was missing.
The Day of the Dog is playing at the Gaslight until March 24. Go see it, and eat dinner beforehand at the West End Bar and Grill. Even just two people can order a whole bottle of wine and nurse it through dinner and intermission!