- Night at the Dogs
The British National Theatre of America doesn't lack for what the English might term "cheek." The National Theatre in London, England, is exactly that, a $75-plus-million theater flagship for the country. For a nomadic theater company to take on that name signals both its intent to produce theater with "an inherently British accent," and to do so with quality productions of extreme artistic integrity. It announces that they might be small, but they ain't amateurs. Their CSN Backstage Theatre production of A Night at the Dogs, by Matt Charman and directed by BNTA cofounder Jo Cattell, did the same.
Dogs, which concluded its run this week, follows one night in the lives of five auto-shop coworkers and the greyhound-racing syndicate they have formed. Carl (played by John Brady) has grand plans for the dog; backwards Chalky (Miles Coleman) and family man Lionel (Andrew Sefia) are happy to buy into the dream, but Carl's brother Danny (Sam Welbourn) wants nothing to do with it. Still, he succumbs to his brother's guilt trip and stays to see the dog off. Unfortunately, live wire Paul (Martin Andrew) shows up before the dog. The evening tragically unravels as Paul becomes more threatening and violent, and Carl tries to preserve his dream, if not his integrity.
Like Anouilh mixed with LaBute, Dogs is a moral examination, and the tension grows minute by minute as relationships are developed, then slowly shifted by casual betrayals. It's a great theatrical trick to create empathy and tension when nothing has been threatened exactly, and the danger builds palpably throughout the show, thanks to some smart acting choices by the cast and subtle but effective staging choices. Andrew's performance as Paul is full of unhinged menace, and a conversation about whether Paul broke or merely "dislocated" someone's jaw seems disturbingly possible. The performance does run into rough patches in places, when the performers seem to run to catch up to the nuances of the script, acting the motivations of the lines after they've been spoken, as opposed to vice versa. Still, the character work has depth, and I never felt as if choices were randomly made or tacked on.
If the show has a problem, it exists in the script itself, in its resolute assertion that people are either victims or violent, cowards or psychotic bullies. There are more ways to fight than drunken punch-ups. Still, the tension of being locked in with these characters is great theater, and when you finally do release your breath at the end, it's with the sound of a punch to the gut.