By Patrick Hurley
So it turns out relationships can be just like dogs, they can bite you when you least expect it. This parallel, and others, can be seen in IAMA Theater Company’s production of A Dog’s House making its world premiere now through April 26 at the Elephant Theatre.
Michael (Graham Sibley) and Eden (Christine Woods) are a seemingly happy couple. At the start of the play they are dealing with a crisis. Their dog Jock, a Rottweiler, has attacked and killed a neighbor’s poodle. Both Michael and Eden are shocked at Jock’s violent outburst, and don’t understand how they didn’t see it coming. The neighbors, the parents of the now dead poodle, Nicole (Katie Lowes) and Bill (Dean Chekvala), come over to Michael and Eden’s house with fliers of their “missing” dog, and seeing that they are so distraught and heartbroken, Michael and Eden decide not to tell them the tragic truth. And, in fact, they instead invite the couple over to dinner the next night.
In a scene reminiscent of Reza’s God of Carnage, dinner turns rather ugly, as both couples find reasons to attack and humiliate one another. The loss of their poodle, for Nicole and Bill, seems to have strong symbolic connotations, much stronger than Michael and Eden were expecting. The lies that Michael and Eden continue to spin start to eat away at their relationship because Michael realizes just what a good liar Eden is, and begins to fear what else she may be lying about. Both relationships seem to start spiraling downward, and as the truth about what happened to the dog gets farther and farther away, other lies start rearing their vicious heads.
The play moves along briskly with biting humor and just enough scathing rhetoric to mirror true dysfunctional relationships in all their glory. Playwright Micah Schraft has created a sometimes hilarious, sometimes uncomfortable, and sometimes quite touching ode to the destructive nature of love. Michael and Eden face more than just a violent dog, they face each other. They are able, through the lies they concoct together, to see more truths about each other than they had previously imagined. Likewise for Nicole and Bill. However, in their case, it’s not so much seeing each other in a new way, it’s more a confirmation of their defects. As if to say, I knew you’ve been awful this whole time. All of this, because one couple lost their dog, and the other raised theirs to be a killer. Perhaps our pets say something about who we are as people?
Director Trip Cullman really excels with the heightened tension. He knows exactly how to tighten this noose. The momentum of this play is only slightly diminished when the scene changes occur. There are no total blackouts, however, and there is action during the changes. And as for the changes themselves, it’s an interesting idea to have the set, which is Michael and Eden’s living room, slowly rotate in a complete circle, so that as the audience we see the room from four different angles, but it feels more like a gimmick than any true narrative necessity. It was a commentary, perhaps, on the need to look at things from different angles to get all the information, but that might be a stretch. The only scene where the change felt necessary was when the sofa was backwards down stage, so that Michael could have his moment with Jock lying on the sofa. The position of the sofa made it so the never-seen Jock could be in a scene without having to be revealed. But it seemed like an awful lot of effort to get to that one scene near the end. It was a very sweet moment, though.
Graham Sibley makes the moment shine. His monologue to Jock is evocative enough to elicit our sympathy. In the wrong hands, the moment could have become awkward or even comical. Mr. Sibley is compelling throughout the play, and he controls Michael’s emotional state so convincingly that his scene with Jock on the sofa is a great payoff. As is his culminating scene. Christine Woods gives a great performance as Eden. She makes the most of her control issues and her insecurities through her deft comic timing and a veracity that keeps us watching her.
Katie Lowes creates a sweet and profoundly pained Nicole. Her ability to emit deep sorrow, even through humorous antics, is quite impressive. She seems always on the verge of tears, and it’s not from pity, but rather a place of unhappiness that she cannot mask. Dean Chekvala is wonderful. His Bill is at once odd and engaging, deadpan and heartfelt. He is a blisteringly funny character and Mr. Chekvala makes the most of it.
This is, overall, a great production. It’s astute, uproarious, heartbreaking, and above all honest. It dares to look at the nature of relationships as they are put to the test. The strain of human interaction sometimes wears on us to the point of breaking, and this play wants to show what that break looks like. Spoiler Alert! It ain’t pretty. But it does make for riveting theater.
A Dog’s House
By Micah Schraft
Directed by Trip Cullman
March 27-April 26
The Elephant Theatre
6322 Santa Monica Blvd.