Day of the Dog by Daniel Damiano, directed by Milton Zoth, is an intriguing exposé of human relationships through the lens of a therapist who has been hired to “deal with” a biting, growling, terrorizing dog named Carrot. The production is enjoying its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters until March 30.
In the first minutes of the play Damiano pushes us over a cliff into surprise, humor and an unexpected snag when we note that the “dog whisperer,” who advertises himself as a “Canine Relations Specialist,” abruptly tells husband Paul (a deferential, intuitive Steve Isom) that human interference determines how a dog behaves. The specialist, “Russian” Vladislav (a funny, deadpan and spot-on terrific Jason Grubbe), adds insult to injury by reminding Paul that the dog, who is merely an animal, has little input into his “problematic behavior” with humans. In other words, the humans are causing the dog problems and the animal can only reflect like a mirror the clouds or sun projected onto him. Since the humans blame the dog and feel he needs to be corrected, then certainly they are the storm clouds the dog mirrors back to them.
It is a novel and shocking perspective that this Canine Relations Specialist has. He is unwavering. He is also egoless and is willing to leave if the family will have none of his attempts to help them. He is so successful and has so many clients, he doesn’t need their money. Indeed, he doesn’t even want to meet the dog, who, in Vladislav’s determination, is less material to what is going on in this family than they imply. However, he will help them, if they will continue to answer his probing questions and be honest about what has happened before and after Carrot entered their home. And, he does want to meet daughter Brittney, since Carrot barks and snarls and growls at her. She is part of the family and integral to the situation with Carrot; her presence is critical. Over Julianne’s protests about Brittany’s “band practice session” to get ready for her trip to Europe the next day, Vladislav insists Brittany come home and be a participating family member if he is to continue. After all, what good will it be if the one who has difficulties with Carrot is not around for the adjustment?
Neither Paul nor Julianne can warp or modify Vladislav’s logical argument or his very real and commonsensical manner with their subtle maneuverings or manipulations. They agree she must be called in. This is the first of many ratchets in the power dynamics between the couple and Vladislav as he solidifies his firm foundation with them. He is a breath of fresh air. We breathe in deeply because, with his rapier wit and logic, he is able to cut through their dissembling and misdirection about “the dog problem.” Above all, with his lack of pretension and objective calm with this potentially intimidating and “together” couple, especially Julianne, he is able to thwart their excuses and move toward the truth of the circumstances.
Damiano has written layered characterizations which the director and ensemble have cannily brought to life. In the moment-to-moment reality of his portrayal, Jason Grubbe’s formidable talents drive the conflict and seal the play’s momentum and direction toward a final ending about which we are kept in suspense until the cast takes us there. If the problem lies not with the dog but with the couple, then what is the mystery that both are keeping locked away and that hinges on the dog? What is Brittany’s relationship with her parents and how does her interaction with them impact her response to Carrot? We wonder what exactly Vladislav is attempting to unearth from this seemingly normal and well-heeled Floridian family to make the situation with Carrot a family-friendly one with no growling, snarling and terrorizing.
Grubbe’s performance and those of Steve Isom and Michelle Hand, who both must balance a delicate defensiveness and emotional unraveling, keep us riveted. We enjoy Vladislav’s unaffected honesty and curt, direct humor. He is no reassuring Ceasar Milan pandering to those who hire him and heeling the personalities of the dogs he is called upon to restrain. In Vladislav’s initial discussion about their daughter and his thrice-repeated statement that he doesn’t “want to meet the dog until it is time,” he has gained a bit of ground and has eased Paul and Julianne into his method of “canine relations.” And as the play progresses he appears to be able to disarm Julianne’s hurried “let’s get this over with, I have my business to attend to” attitude with his solid rationality: The situation is critical to their family’s progress as a family, especially if they want to keep Carrot.
This is all well and good, but as the specialist’s questions mine deeper, and his “no nonsense, let’s get down and deal with your interactions” methods intensify, Paul and Julianne’s defenses become more apparent and remain entrenched. Vladislav has to work harder. And he has to walk the rope along the precipice of failure with this couple who would prefer to externalize their problems with themselves and each other using blame and judgment. Indeed, if they will not work with Vladislav, Carrot will become the scapegoat and end up in a shelter taking his “havoc” with him. It seems the last thing the husband and wife intend to deal with is themselves and how they relate to each other.
Damiano’s play builds to a crescendo as it pits Vladaslav’s truthfulness and empathy for this family against their own fears, disappointments and inner alienation. The suspense is in wondering if Vadislav will ever be able to probe with finality into their hearts and extract the truths they are running from. It is the only way to help them free themselves to love each other and create a more harmonious atmosphere in which all of them can thrive. And if this occurs, then maybe they will see Carrot as a pet to relax with and enjoy. If not, they face separation, first from Carrot, then from each other as the violence escalates.
The production is an excellent example of ensemble acting at its best, one layer and brick building on another. To mix metaphors, the actors throw each other the ball without its ever being lost or dropped. Damiano engineers the play’s themes and characterizations with a solid focus on examining human nature’s need to escape the painful truth until it is almost too late. And in the instances when it is too late, Damiano shows that the relationships can suffer and die as a result. Above all, the play examines the human need for animals and questions the why of it. In that framework, Day of the Dog achieves the brightest of days.