When real animals appear onstage, as in every production of The Wizard of Oz or Annie, it induces awwws from the audience. To a lesser degree, that happens when Buddy makes his entrance in Undermain Theatre's production of David Rabe's The Dog Problem.
He's a beaut of a medium-sized mutt, well behaved and without so much as an inkling of stage fright. It's too bad about the thing that happens to him.
Rabe's dark comedy uses the dog as the catalyst for a series of confrontations between a group of kooky mobster types, and the dog's owner, Ray (Jonathan Brooks), and his bumbling sidekick, Ronnie (Drew Wall). You see, Ray had a one-night fling with Teresa (Shannon Kearns-Simmons), sister of bad guy Joey (Newton Pittman).
To make Ray pay, and because the dog was apparently watching the bow-chicka-wow-wow (bow-wow?), the pooch has to take the bullet. But not before Uncle Malvolio (Bruce Dubose) and his goon, Tommy Stones (Andrew Aguilar), get involved.
There's no sense in any of it, really, but Rabe isn't trying to create a world wherein sense is made. Where's the fun in that? Undermain's gorgeous production, directed by Katherine Owens, turns the fun up to 11.
The playwright is more interested in who's-on-first dialogue, so that when the plot turns into something metaphysically absurd (there's also a creepy-clownish Priest, played by Kent Williams), these characters and situations don't feel so out of place. So what if they live in even more of a bizarroland than The Sopranos did?
Owens has assembled her Undermain mainstays, and no doubt picked this play because she knows that Brooks and Pittman, most notably, can handle the rapid-fire talking in circles without winking or flubbing. And that they do—with a side of gusto. Wall has played his share of ne'er-do-wells, but takes that to an absurd level here. Dubose always manages to temper outlandish characters with regal speech.
The Dog Problem goes on about 20 minutes too long, as it gets more weird and sidles up to the edge of tedious. It's not to worry, though, because there's so much to admire about John Arnone's set, with a park bench and tiny kitchen plopped into a pop-art wonderland; and Giva Taylor's fabulous thrift store-mobster wear.
And then there's Buddy. For so perfectly playing a character whose happy-go-lucky innocence sets off a chain of senseless, and increasingly nonsensical, events, he deserves a treat. Someone give that guy a bacon-wrapped soup bone.