A Man's Best Friend
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
March 3, 2005
At its core, Jeffrey M. Jones's A Man’s Best Friend is a circus of human failings. Jones’s characters flaunt their flaws under this big top without ever realizing their existence. The main character is a "bad clown" named Sluggo who does nasty things all the time. Sluggo’s wife, Jane, has dated Sluggos in various forms since high school and she can’t seem to stop no matter how badly things turn out. His adopted brother Steve is a pathetic 30-something who just wants to have sex with young, hot chicks. Steve goes to a swami who tells him he has a "squid tumor" but then admits that he’s “a lying sack of shit”; still Steve allows the swami to operate on him. Sluggo’s guardian angel is too weak to resist his cruelty and eventually turns toward the dark side. His mom is jealous of other women getting too close to her boys. And there is a vicious, nightstick happy cop who keeps showing up in the bedroom.
A Man’s Best Friend is a bizarrely funny play, though at times I found it hard to follow. There is obvious intelligence at work here. Jones creates a world where cruelty is the currency of all human interactions. However, because of the surreal nature of the Jones’ format, it is difficult to clearly understand all the playwright’s intentions. But I’ll take a stab.
I say that Sluggo is a metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man. He is compelled to do bad things and to feebly smear on clown white makeup by a force within himself. That force is Sluggo’s Id, the mechanism that Freud claims we are all born with that allows us to get our basic needs met, but the Id in adulthood translates as getting whatever feels good at the time, with no consideration for the reality of the situation. Jones anthropomorphizes the Id as squid—making it so that everything Sluggo touches literally turns to squid, as if his selfishness has the ability to transform those around him. His brother Steve develops a squid-headed tumor where Sluggo stabs him, and his wife Jane gives birth to a squid (a la stork delivery by a dead Andy Warhol.) Eventually, Sluggo’s squid (Id) catches up with him in the form of a Giant Land Squid that wants to consume him. His loyal and oft-kicked dog, Woof, is forced to save him. Woof sees through Sluggo’s cruelty to the good that’s hidden in him and in turn causes an ever so slight transformation in Sluggo’s character.
But that's just my opinion, following a fair amount of reflection. It's as subjective as what makes a person laugh. And I definitely laughed.
The cast does an excellent job with this 80-minute roller coaster ride of shifting motivations. Tom Lenaghen grew on me as Sluggo, but there is an element of naturalness missing from his voice and some of his movements. Mary Shultz is hilarious and dynamic as the wife with no self esteem. Arthur Aulisi nails the pathetic brother Steve. Amazingly, he manages to squeeze some sympathy from his absurd situation (and a lot of laughs). Kate Benson explodes all over the stage as Officer Betty. She is a breath of fresh energy every time she enters. I found it hard to take my eyes off of Heidi Schreck as the guardian angel. She has a stage presence that is brighter than her pink wig. But it is Bruce DuBose who steals the show, playing Warhol, Mom, and the Great Swami. DuBose is funny, versatile, and altogether a natural comic star with perfect timing and knock ‘em dead delivery.
Director Katherine Owens does a good job drawing a consistent style from her actors. However there are a few stylistic choices that I question—could the movement be more interesting, and could finer points be placed on the playwright’s intentions? There are a few moments when the directing style doesn’t seem to match the writing style.
Aaron Mooney’s light design is sharp and Happy Yancey’s costumes are fitting. (Except, where are Sluggo’s big floppy shoes that he tells us he couldn’t rent a mid-size car with?) Robert Winn completes the look of the production with a set that is a perfectly bare stage with only a squeaky red curtain and a few circus backdrops.
The cruelty in A Man’s Best Friend is repulsive at times but it’s always funny or oddly entertaining in some way. For me that’s what it really comes down to: I enjoyed the show because it made me laugh at things that I never thought I would. Ultimately, I think A Man’s Best Friend is worth a look because Jones’s shameless sense of humor and peculiar world view will give you a refreshing jolt out of your seat. There's authentic originality packed behind every kick of the dog.