Red Dog Howls
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
September 21, 2012
As a theatergoer, one of my biggest regrets is missing Kathleen Chalfant's performance in the original production of Wit. Of course, I’ve seen her in a number of productions since then, but it is her work as a steely John Donne scholar in the final days of a cancer battle that has since become theater lore, a performance for which she will forever be associated.
After seeing her performance in Red Dog Howls, Alexander Dinelaris’ spellbinding and acutely affecting drama now at New York Theatre Workshop under the direction of Ken Rus Schmoll, I no longer feel bad about missing Wit. She plays a 91-year-old Armenian immigrant who has faced the most unimaginable horror humanly possible. It is a performance I will never forget.
Dramaturgically, the set-up is fairly conventional. It’s the mid-1980’s; Michael Kiriakos (the captivating and nuanced Alfredo Narciso) has recently lost his Greek father, and has come across a series of letters which lead him to Rose (Chalfant), the paternal grandmother who abandoned the family years before and he always thought was dead.
As the pair connect over food, arguments, and arm-wrestling, Rose slowly begins to reveal the secret that has haunted her since 1915, the year of the Armenian genocide caused by the Ottoman Turks. The revelation is a slow one; Rose doesn’t start out trusting Michael, an expectant father with wife Gabriella (Florencia Lozano, with not enough to do), and he must earn it.
I found the play to be more-or-less intriguingly crafted, however simple; a series of commentary monologues from Michael interspersed with dialogue scenes, which lead up to the climactic revelation. Where Dinelaris succeeds and most other playwrights fail is in the mystery itself. When creating a play based around a central mystery, that mystery must be worth however many minutes of our time. So often, the revelations are thoroughly disappointing, but not here.
The last 20-minutes, in which Rose finally confesses the terrifying atrocity inflicted upon her, one which actually surpassed what I expected it to be, are traumatizing, not for the faint of heart, shattering and devastating. As delivered by the ever-remarkable Chalfant, the monologue is bone-chilling, with screams and cries I can still hear days later. But her whole performance is just as remarkable, from her accent to the way she shuffles across the room.
Acting students, theatergoers, fans of the great performances by actors we worship, take note: get thee down to East 4th Street.