A Piercing Howl

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

With a title like Red Dog Howls, you know Alexander Dinelaris' new drama is not going to be a light piece of entertainment. The austere, simple three-person play is unflinching, even if at first it seems decidedly ordinary. The plot involves a long, lost relative, a marriage on the rocks and deep family secrets revealed. What else is new? What elevates Red Dog Howls (currently receiving its world premiere at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood) is a deceptively nuanced script and the performance of Kathleen Chalfant.

red_dog1.jpg The direction by Michael Peretzian and the sets by Tom Buderwitz are also of a high quality, but this is Chalfant's show. An actress who's appeared in countless films and television shows, Chalfant is one of those rare performers whose reputation is based primarily on her work for the stage. Chalfant was nominated for a Tony for the original Angels in America, but it was her performance as Dr. Vivian Bearing in the 1998 play Wit, that earned her nearly every acting award in New York—and then every acting award here in Los Angeles two years later when Wit came to the Geffen.

In Red Dog Howls, Chalfant plays Rose Afratian, a 91-year old woman living alone in the unfashionable reaches of Manhattan. A young writer, who serves as the play's narrator (played by Matthew Rauch), comes to visit one day and the drama unfolds.

From this moment on, the writer is under the spell of his Grandmother, and comes to her house everyday—often neglecting the needs of his pregnant wife. Michael wants to learn why grandmother left his family to live in solitude and he suspects Rose wants something too.

red_dog5.jpg Early on, one fears that Red Dog Howls is going to turn into a sort of Tuesdays with Morrie-style life lessons drama. Luckily, Dinelaris writes these inter-generational exchanges without plodding sentimentality. The character of Rose Afratian almost acts as a schmaltz detector, instantly cutting off her writer grandson whenever he gets ponderous and veers too far from her carefully orchestrated lunchtime chats.

Red Dog Howls, as the title indicates, builds to a shocking finale—and while the script is well-crafted in the way it slowly and painfully turns up the heat, it is Chalfant's performance that gives the nightmare a fragile, tragic humanity.

red_dog4.jpg She achieves this without make-up, big gestures or other actorly gimmicks. Chalfant makes no effort to look or sound exactly like a 91-year-old Armenian woman—her cropped hair and clipped cadences suggest any nationality really—but the precision with which she walks, speaks and most of all, sits still, is so authoritative that one forgets where Rose or Chalfant are from. All we see and hear is a fascinating woman and her life on stage.

Red Dog Howl ultimately does force us to appreciate where Rose is from as the Armenian Genocide plays an integral part in the plot; but in this production, the politics of it are not forced. Chalfant's performance stresses the universality of Rose's suffering, which allows its horror to pierce through the standard angst of “issue oriented” dramas. It's Chalfant's Howls that will linger in your ears and your heart.

Red Dog Howls runs at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood through Friday, June 13.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Photos: Ed Krieger