nytheatre.com review by Cate Cammarata
August 24, 2011
Having heard of the power and grit of John Steppling’s plays, I eagerly anticipated seeing a production of his play Dogmouth during Theater for the New City’s 2011 Dream Up Festival. The play, written in Paris and developed in London and Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum before its premiere in LA in 2002, is vintage Steppling: probing, incessant, angry and nihilistic, with repulsive characters placed in hopeless situations. As Steppling says, “Art is not your friend.” Evidently.
It is not often that we are treated to an opportunity to experience Steppling’s works here on the East Coast. Called “One of the Ten Best Political Playwrights in the US” by the NY Times Sunday Magazine and “The Beckett of the American West” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Steppling is an important West Coast playwright whose plays have been developed in Taper-sponsored workshops, presented at Kentucky’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His work is raw, incisive and powerful, giving voice to those on the fringes of our society who have none. He was influential enough that young writers who copied his short, cinematic-style scenes were referred to as being “Stepplingesque.” Recently returning to the States after an eleven year absence, he is now artistic director of the theater company Gunfighter Nation and had a new play, Phantom Luck, produced last fall in Los Angeles. He is a major American playwright, teacher, and director who, along with other cutting-edge artists, is working to create an experimental theater scene in LA reminiscent of New York in the '70s.
The play Dogmouth, based on a real person, is set in the '80s and revolves around the character of Dogmouth, a 55-year-old Vietnam vet who has acquired his nickname by breeding champion fighting dogs. The acknowledged leader of a band of unsavory rail-riding renegades in the Mojave Desert and later Phoenix, he has recently achieved a degree of notoriety for being featured in a TV interview about the rising crime rates along the railways by a gang of homeless men. Accompanied not only by fellow vet and “associate” Becker but also by his young pregnant girlfriend Nyah, Dogmouth is an intelligent man whose voluntary alienation from the rest of society has detonated him into a dangerous, bitter, merciless killer. Always submerging any human emotions that might somehow still reside within—he stifles his instincts to console Nyah after the death of her beloved parakeet and is determined to be detached from both her and his own unborn child—Dogmouth rejects human relationships in favor of an alpha male position within his own pack. His attempts to stay on top in his dog-eat-dog world drive the narrative thread that connects the episodic short scenes into a stark reflection of a man fighting not only society, cancer and death, but also himself.
As powerful as Steppling’s writing is, this world premiere of a new version directed and produced by Stephan Morrow doesn’t quite live up to expectations. It may have been the sparse attendance on my Wednesday evening performance or the Festival time limitations that eliminated an intermission, but certainly at times it was difficult to retain the intensity of the dialogue-driven performances.
Director Morrow, who also plays the lead role of Dogmouth, creates a “junkyard dog” persona, ceaselessly growling and snarling obscenities throughout the entire first act but in later scenes allowing the real human being underneath to show. It is in Dogmouth’s monologues where we see him as he is: a man marginalized by choice and circumstances, but also a man who exhibits some vulnerability as he almost poetically reflects upon his own mortality and the meaning of existence. Clad in ripped jeans, denim jacket and with a dog’s choker collar around his neck, Morrow gives the physical impression of a human Pit Bull Terrier. He is, as his friend Becker explains, “Not what you call a good man.”
Ray Wasik as Becker, Dogmouth’s accomplice and fellow Vietnam vet, lights up the stage and considerably lightens the mood whenever he is around. I found myself looking forward to his appearances, which practically guaranteed laughs. His authentic portrayal of the submissive sidekick is the perfect foil against the dogmatic persistence and anger of Dogmouth. Kendra Leigh Landon as Nyah, Dogmouth’s whiney pregnant girlfriend, sympathetically portrays the hopelessness of young women caught in the trap of dependence upon the benevolence of abusive partners. She believably appears increasingly pregnant as the play progresses, her movements becoming more labored and physically “heavy.” L.B. Williams, as the top dog breeding champion Weeks, is detached and suspicious, but static.
Devoid of any other sound effects, which would have been helpful, the Johnny Cash song “The Man Comes Around” as the play opens is a hauntingly perfect choice to set the tone for the production, and Zen Mansley’s sparse set reflects the bleakness of a life spent alongside the railways of the desert.
John Steppling believes that audiences should leave the theater haunted by their experience. Despite the inherently weak ending and ponderousness of certain scenes, Dogmouth remains an important American play. It’s time for Steppling to take the express train east and become as recognized on this coast as he is back home.