My Barking Dog
Reviewed by Bob Verini
The Theatre @ Boston Court
Through May 24
Talk about your call of the wild! The atavistic urge – the impulse to fall in with nature in its most primitive state – is an old standby in drama and literature, and it’s now being applied to strong effect in My Barking Dog, Eric Coble’s startling two-hander at the Theatre @ Boston Court. Not unlike Tracy Letts’s Bug, the play forces a confrontation between modern man and the animal kingdom which goes wildly over the top but still gets under your skin to resonate both thematically and dramatically.
The prolific Coble, frequently produced at America’s regional theaters, has a particular knack for creating protagonists who are just one step – but it’s a critical, drastic step – removed from psychic balance. In The Dead Guy, an average Joe is recruited to commit suicide on national TV for a reality series finale; in Bright Ideas, Type A parents contemplate murder to get their kid into a competitive preschool. Last season, Estelle Parsons made it to Broadway in The Velocity of Autumn as an elderly mom, threatening to deploy her cache of homemade Molotov cocktails should anyone try to force her into a nursing home.
In this current work, previously staged at the Cleveland Public Theater, Coble brings us perhaps his most preternaturally “normal” characters yet. We meet them first unaware of each other, Melinda (Michelle Azar) miming some achingly repetitive copying work, Toby (Ed F. Martin) searching the room to get some Wi-Fi on the fly for his (mimed) computer. Through side-by-side monologues, we gradually discover they occupy different floors of a high-rise apartment complex, each in a state of incipient despair over job issues. Toby has been unemployed for months. (The workers were counted off, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, and all the 2’s were laid off.) Meanwhile, Melinda has been stuck at that same machine for 14 years: Her ID badge looks no different from on the day she was hired, which we quickly take as evidence that her life has dried up.
Not much new in that setup: modern laborers = ground-down drones. Yet for all their shriveled spirits, these two remain quite touching, Martin’s grinning, cluelessly affable shmoe is set against Azar’s sweet amalgam of vulnerability and grit, reminiscent of Gilda Radner. (Actually, as Toby started bumbling his way into tentative courtship overtures, I started to see them as grownup versions of Lisa Loopner and Todd DiLaMuca, the nerdy teens Radner and Bill Murray introduced on Saturday Night Live.)
What ushers them and the play out of Neil Simon sitcommery into the danger zone of a Tracy Letts or Sarah Kane is the appearance, on their doorstep, of a coyote. Not some Wile E. caricature, either; more like the critter who bonds with Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves, seemingly possessed of a profound insight into human souls.
At first he’s a curiosity and occasional passerby, whom Melinda feeds while Toby researches the species’ fun facts on line. Did you know, for instance, that the scientific name, canis latrans, means “barking dog?” Well, without once barking, our (unseen) feral friend gradually opens a portal, White Rabbit-style, into a parallel reality in which the territorial imperative, erotic interplay, and urban eco-terrorism all start to rear their heads. And as the couple’s lives start to break apart and transform into something quite different, so too does Tom Buderwitz’s set – all of it in the service of a really potent metaphor for modern man’s uncertain place in an endangered natural environment. (Particular kudos to John Zalewski’s sound design for making the leap so taut.)
I hope I am leaving the impression that the play goes slightly bonkers. It does. But it also has to be said that Azar, Martin, and director Michael Michetti play it all absolutely straight, without a single moment of recognition that it is bonkers, which of course makes all the difference. Despite a denouement that carelessly walks away from exploring the implications of what’s come before, My Barking Dog manages to maintain its hold on the audience’s leash and makes us stay.
The Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (added perf Wed., May 20, 8 p.m; understudy perfs Mon., May 4 & Wed., May 6, 8 p.m.); through May 24. (626) 683-6883, www.bostoncourt.com