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Red Dog Howls
Although Michael was told his grandmother was dead, he's not surprised when he discovers her at the return address on letters he finds after his father's death. He obeys his father's last wish that he not open them but curiosity leads him to an apartment in Washington Heights where the now 91-year-old Rose (Kathleen Chalfont) has lived for 60 years.
Rose welcomes him warily. Only little by little as they play games, eats the Armenian food she prepares, talk about Armenian writers, does she begin to open to him. Finally when his pregnant wife Gabriella (Darcie Siciliano) is rushed to the hospital, Rose teaches him an Armenian dance, orders a bottle of brandy and tells him the appalling family secrets he always sensed were there.
Michael is a depressed self-absorbed whiner, so wrapped up in his own confusions and griefs that his wife, who accuses him of playing victim, is on the brink of bailing. We can see why his mother left his father. Rose is having none of this.
"I need you to be strong!" she tells him, as the amazing nonogenarian beats him at arm wrestling and physically carries him to bed. Michael starts working out at his gym every day and gains the strength he will, indeed, need.
Produced by Gang of Five-New York in a world premiere at El Portal Theatre, the complex play has grace notes of humor, well timed by Chalfont and Rauch. It's the kind of story that has you puzzling its moral values long after the terrible and shocking ending. There may be elements of guilt, retribution, punishment here, though the motivation of a 91-year-old woman's early religious indoctrination and simple inability to recover from her hideous trauma are strong enough.
Director Michael Peretzian finds the rhythm and lyricism in Dinelaris's writing and brings out the touching struggles in the scenes between the young couple. Dinelaris uses long, sometimes too long, interior monologues that are double used to fill in the gaps in the story and address Michael's feelings. He builds his story with infinite skill, foreshadowing the ghastly revelations to come, using feats of strength to subtly layer his tale and coloring it with Armenian food, culture and mannerisms.
The award-winning Chalfant is unforgettable as Rose, whose strength and torment are the pillars of her life but sometimes part to show flashes of the delightful funny girl she must have been. Rauch's characterization is so natural it's easy to overlook until you realize how very difficult that feat is and how unaffectedly his anger and self-absorption warp him until, with Rose's help, he comes into the strength that broadens his viewpoint to include others as well as himself. Siciliano brings feisty strength to Gabriella.
The ethnic music composed and performed by Ara Dabandjian in a spotlit corner of the stage serves as a Greek chorus to this haunting story which will resonate with questions and secrets long after the curtain falls.