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Pet Theory 

As long as Micah Cohen's onstage, The Dog Problem is fun

Wednesday, Oct 8 2003
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After an early-'70s trilogy of strong plays about Vietnam, David Rabe started to overreach in comedies about amusing lowlifes, like the half-employed actors in Hurlyburly. That saga of coke addiction and Hollywood foolishness clocked in at nearly three hours -- a sitcom with epic ambitions. The Dog Problem is a comedy about Sopranos-style Mafia toughs that overreaches in other ways. It is not, thank God, three hours long, but it does try to wring religious meaning out of a ménage à trois with a dog.

One youngish tough named Ronnie meets his friend Ray on the street, and after a few minutes of edgy, New York­inflected conversation, Ray learns that the meeting is a setup: A stranger named Joey pounces on him and starts yelling about how Ray insulted his sister by forcing her to do -- well, something with Ray's dog. This opening scene grabs you by the collar. Greg Baldwin, Micah Cohen, and Scott Agar Jaicks do terrific work, not just with their accents but also with the straight-faced, ridiculous tone demanded by Rabe. Joey threatens to shoot Ray, then backs off, apparently satisfied, but calls his Uncle Malvolio for help. "Uncle Mal" is a Mafia don, or at least some dark prince of the underworld, in silk pajamas and a wheelchair. He concocts a plan for revenge on Ray by "whacking" his offending Rottweiler.

The plan is simple: Nab Ray, threaten to shoot him, but give him an out by allowing him to sacrifice the dog instead. Then -- long after the dog's been shot -- tell Ray it was all a hoax; they never seriously wanted to murder him. For the rest of his life Ray would stew in the knowledge that Buddy died because he, Ray, had been too chicken to face the bluff.

So Ray's existential crisis boils down to what philosophers call "the God problem." Should he give up his life or not? If so, why? Ray isn't reflective enough to ponder these imponderables. He doesn't dwell on them, and makes the expected mistake. But late in the play Rabe manages to bring on a wandering priest for some dialogue about faith and sin. By then it's too late. The story has already taken too many weird turns (from an unexpected marriage to Ronnie's apparent psychic powers) for the audience to care about theology.

New York magazine critic John Simon dismissed The Dog Problem when it premiered in 2001 as "the kind of play you write when you have nothing to write about." Maybe, but this production works in spite of its flaws because of a beautifully fervid performance by Micah Cohen. He plays Ray as a wiry, nervous motormouth who understands next to nothing about what goes on around him. Trying to explain what happened with the dog, for example, he says to Ronnie, "She had these fucking tits, OK, she had these fucking bubus, and -- the dog went nuts." Oh.

Greg Baldwin also does note-perfect work as Ronnie, the schlubby friend, and Scott Agar Jaicks plays a truly dim and unhinged Joey, incompetent nephew of a mob boss, trying to act all tough. The scenes with Ronnie and Joey trying to navigate toward each other in Lower Manhattan on their cell phones are amusing, and the scenes with Ronnie and Joey and Ray -- thrown uncomfortably together -- move with a rude energy. Niki Yapo is also strong as Teresa, the offended sister, especially in Act 2.

The other actors are unfortunately stiff as a board: Bob Bosco isn't sure where to put hand or foot as the priest; Roque Versace line-reads as Tommy Stones, Uncle Mal's thickheaded bodyguard; and an actor called Appelbaum looks the part of Uncle Mal but lacks the vitality to match Cohen, Baldwin, or Jaicks. Appelbaum presents a coarse, bald, crazy-eyed image of Uncle Mal, with a long scar on his left cheek; he moves languidly and wears elegant crimson PJs. After the dog problem's been solved, Uncle Mal says to Ray, "All ya hedda do was have some guts, show some balls, and that dog a' yours'd still be around lickin' its ass." Superficially Appelbaum is fine, but not a single word out of his mouth is unselfconscious.

In general the play is fun as long as Cohen's onstage, and maybe that, even more than Rabe's lurch into theology, is the problem with the lengthy final scene. Uncle Mal and the priest have too much to say, while Cohen's character sleeps off a liquor binge, still devastated about the dog.

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