Off-Broadway Theater Review: DAY OF THE DOG (St. Louis Actors’ Studio at 59E59 Theaters)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on March 19, 2014

in Theater-New York

THE HUMAN WHISPERER

Most theatrical performances feel a little awkward at the beginning; even in good shows it usually takes the actors a few minutes to settle into their characters and to find the correct modulation for their voices. Which is why Milton Zoth’s staging of Daniel Damiano’s hilarious drama Day of the Dog is all the more impressive; the show hits the ground running, as they say, and doesn’t stop for what is a riveting two hours. Currently a St. Louis Theater Circle Award nominee for Outstanding New Play, Mr. Damiano’s creation is well deserving of the accolade; the work is virtually flawless, as is its execution.

L-R: Michelle Hand, Jason Grubbe, and Steve Isom in DAY OF THE DOG, written by Daniel Damiano, and directed by Milton Zoth, at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.On the surface Paul (a wonderfully tentative Steve Isom) and Julianne (the excellent Michelle Hand) have a solid life, enviable even, in a bourgeois sort of way. He’s an accountant; she’s a successful high-end interior decorator on the cusp of getting her own reality TV show. Their unseen oboe-playing daughter and her school band have been invited to perform in Austria. The three live in a nice home meticulously decorated by Julianne.

In a way they are representative of the modern American middle-class ideal. Paul is a sensitive man, very polite, subtly effeminate, a little passive-aggressive; we get the sense that he never demands but suggests, and probably cries when he’s blue. Years ago, Paul abandoned his dream of becoming a chef for the stability of being an accountant—a decision about which he has some regrets but one he seems to have put in perspective.

L-R: Steve Isom and Jason Grubbe in DAY OF THE DOG, written by Daniel Damiano, and directed by Milton Zoth, at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.Julianne is ambitious, fit, arrogant and busy. She is a bit emasculating with respect to her husband (in this family she’s the one who confuses the names of his friends), but one could argue this is more by default than intention; somebody’s got to be the “man” of the house. All in all, everything seems to be more or less satisfactory—except for the dog, a German Shepherd named Carrot.

Carrot growls at their daughter and has bitten Paul, and after seeing a number of dog experts, all of whom tried and failed to fix Carrot’s aggressive behavior, the couple hires Vadislav (the delightful Jason Grubbe), a self-proclaimed “Canine Relations Specialist.” But this slovenly eccentric of dubious origins turns out to be more interested in the family’s history and dynamics than in their dog, and it doesn’t take long for the couple’s pent-up resentments, frustrations and anxieties to spill out all over their immaculate “feng shui” living room.

L-R: Michelle Hand and Steve Isom in DAY OF THE DOG, written by Daniel Damiano, and directed by Milton Zoth, at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg,Mr. Damiano’s play masterfully disassembles the porous foundation of this family. He shows us the humor of a dysfunctional marriage, of a couple living in denial, without ever resorting to caricature; the script is never cheap or simplistic. Organic dialogue flows effortlessly from the mouths of rich, truthful characters. In the beginning we think we know this couple with their well-ordered middle-class life, and it’s not difficult to make fun of the pair, of their generic ambitions and values. But Mr. Damiano quickly takes us beyond the façade. He shows us Paul and Julianne’s humanity, and he does so without vulgar displays of literary invention, without sentimentality or clichés, but by bringing to dramatic life those little details pivotal in real life, which are so often overlooked in art in favor of “big” ideas.

L-R: Michelle Hand, Jason Grubbe, and Steve Isom in DAY OF THE DOG, written by Daniel Damiano, and directed by Milton Zoth, at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.Mr. Zoth’s direction is elegant and precise, and the performances he elicits from all three players are as exciting as they are well-grounded; the characters feel thoroughly explored. Mr. Zoth makes especially good use of Mr. Grubbe’s rotund build in combination with Cristie Johnston’s compact set, which serves well to underscore Vadislav’s intrusiveness in his clients’ home. And although Vadislav’s back story sounds a little contrived, Mr. Grubbe plays his character with such charm and conviction that it hardly matters.

photos by Carol Rosegg

Day of the Dog
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
59E59 Theaters
scheduled to end on March 30, 2014
for tickets, call 212.279.4200 or visit www.59e59.org
for more info, visit www.stlas.org

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