In Red Dog Howls, Kathleen Chalfant offers a harrowing portrait of nobility twisted by pitiless fate into acts of grotesque horror. I refer not, alas, to the plight of Chalfant’s character—Rose, a survivor of the 1915 Armenian genocide—but to the mortifying spectacle of her performance itself. When Chalfant has the right material, as in Angels in America or Wit, her combination of cosmic stoicism and churning emotion can be shattering; but those same qualities boomerang against her when she applies them, with equal effort, to a script like Red Dog Howls. The gulf between the bathos of Alexander Dinelaris’s writing and the intensity of Chalfant’s commitment to it is unfathomable.
New York Theatre Workshop is entitled to make mistakes, of course, but this one’s a bona fide howler. Alfredo Narciso plays the colorless protagonist who discovers after his father’s death that his grandmother, Rose, is still alive. (Florencia Lozano plays the small, indifferently written role of his pregnant wife.) Director Ken Rus Schmoll creates a beautifully strange stage, heavy with empty space, and the production does yeoman’s work to disguise the script’s flaws. Most of the play is merely banal and portentous: a patchwork of direct-address expositional monologues and thin scenes, with historical info woven in. But after 80 minutes of delaying the inevitable revelation of terrible family secrets, Dinelaris has Rose explode in a monologue so outrageously lurid, so risibly over-the-top, that one can only feel keen embarrassment on Chalfant’s behalf. The play wants us to bear witness to the atrocities suffered by the Armenian people, yet leaves us no choice but to respectfully avert our eyes.—Adam Feldman