The Undermain Theatre’s production of David Rabe’s The Dog Problem is sharp. This baby takes OK material and makes it crisp and new. I’m talking fresh-minted, large-denomination bills. A comic payoff.
Dog is simply one of the sharpest shows the Deep Ellum company has offered in some time. Not to badmouth the company’s exceptional work the past two seasons, but The Dog Problem is funnier than Port Twilight and more mobbed-up than The Black Monk. All right, it’s not as adventurous or totally out-there — but definitely funnier. The thing is, it’s not a great Rabe script. Compared to masterworks like Hurlyburly or Streamers, it gets a B. That’s because it’s derivative next to those plays. It’s kind of The Sopranos Meets Sixth Sense Meets Everybody Loves Raymond.
In fact, I read The Dog Problem when it came out in print and thought it seemed somewhat odd and light, even rambling, not quirky enough to be truly interesting.
In short, a shaggy dog story.
A small-time guy gets in hot water with a local mob-connected mook because the mob-connected mook’s hot-headed sister went to bed with Mr. Small-Time. She complained about how she was treated. Small-Time actually left his dog in the bedroom. One thing leads to another, as they often do, and the Godfather wants the dog whacked, Small-Time and the sister get married while Small-Time’s sidekick begins to spook out everyone, including the Godfather, because Sidekick keeps getting advice from the dead.
Not for the first time, director Katherine Owens has found gold where I saw mostly candy wrappers. From the rapid-fire, vaudevillian patter of the comic goofballs on the corner to the way she draws out the classic Rabe-ish patterns of masculine loyalty and betrayal, Owens has put together a crackerjack show, one that actually redeems the script’s earlier staging misfires in New York. It’s got pacing, it’s got color, it’s got a John Arnone set, foggy meetings in a park and a priest hearing confessions out of nowhere. Best of all, Owens has drawn out spot-on performances from Jonathan Brooks, Shannon Kearns-Simmons and Newton Pittman, who is the absolute reincarnation of Ray Liotta from Goodfellas — the best work they’ve all done. And then there’s Drew Wall, who apparently can channel Steve Buscemi. He’s the show’s real comic prize in the box.
So set aside the holiday shopping for a day or two — you know the retailers are only going to get more desperate the closer to Christmas we get — and buy yourself a real present. See it while you can.