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By John Thomason
Is Sally Bondi’s character in Thinking Cap Theatre’s Hot Dog a person or a dog?
She’s both, apparently; the playwright, Sarah Kosar, offers this character descriptor at the beginning of her script: “Has body of a woman, the head of a dog.” No other explanation needed, please move along, nothing to see here. This is how things are in the suburban town of Butler, Penn.
But what does it mean to simultaneously be a person and a dog? Buried somewhere deep in the process of transferring ideas to page and then page to stage, Kosar’s play stepped into a fundamental correlation between the care of our canines and our very elderly. Both can harbor feelings of helplessness at completing even the simplest objectives on their own. Both can be self-centered; everything, from their perspective, should revolve around them. Both can effectively make you feel guilty for even thinking of removing that suitcase from the spare room.
But a dog, unless he’s Cujo, will always return your care and patience with limitless affection, and is hardwired to never hold grudges. You get back what you put in. Our elderly relatives can remain bitter curmudgeons until their final breaths. But even in these cases, we can usually find at least a kernel of goodness and humanity, a positive attribute to override the ceaseless squall of negativity.
Intentionally or not, that kernel is decidedly missing from Thinking Cap’s U.S. premiere of Hot Dog, running in the company’s transitional home at Nova Southeastern University’s Taft Center black box.
A clip of Archie Bunker opens the production, beaming from its central projection screen/onstage TV set, and there’s a lot of Bunker in Bondi. Her character, known simply as “Dog” but also called “Mom” by her two daughters, is irredeemable—a nasty and manipulative caricature conspicuously lacking the minutest note of sympathy. As a result, Hot Dog comes across as a mean-spirited hate letter to a dying parent whose time can’t come soon enough.
The Dog’s most obedient daughter, Maryanne (Niki Fridh), lives in a nearby home, and she’s been Dog’s/Mom’s chief caretaker for as long as she has required care. But she’s prepared to sell their house and move on—to hand over the reins (and the leash) to her sister Carol (Ann Marie Olson), a divorcee and, significantly, a breast cancer survivor (Kosar’s script ages the characters much older than Thinking Cap’s production, but fortunately it’s a distinction without a difference).
Alternating between scenes at the two homes—presented on Chas Collins’ weird but economic set design, where a centrally placed dining room table separates the properties, and doubles in each of them—Hot Dog consists largely of this painful caregiver transition, into which Dog is dragged kicking, screaming, growling, pissing and biting.
Of everyone in the cast, Olson brings the most enthusiasm and depth—she’s the only one who seems to transcend the sitcom trappings into which the rest of the cast slides with varying degrees of discomfort. Like most powerful females in situation comedies, Fridh’s Maryanne obviously rules her family nest, but she comes off as severe and humorless. Mark Duncan, as her cat-obsessed, cuckolded husband, is no less thinly conceived, and the actor consciously suppresses his signature propensity for high-pitched warbles. Their chemistry is nil.
As for Bondi, donning a partial canine mask redolent of a Victorian costume ball, she navigates the play’s high concept—acting as a human biped one minute, growling like an angry dog the next—with studied aplomb; it’s not her fault that Kosar’s creation lacks any sense of coherence (unlike in a play like Sylvia, in which the dog is, for all its human chatter, distinctly a dog). But the fact that so few of Bondi’s intended laugh lines land as expected is a problem.
Nicole Stodard’s direction comes across as less detail-oriented than usual, not to mention dramatically underlit. Noticeable dramaturgical flaws include a scene in which Dog yells at Carol to apply some rouge on her cheeks because “You look like fuckin’ Casper.” At the time, Olson’s cheeks were a bright crimson. The grand TV set, which sometimes projects grainy home movies cleverly borrowed from the actors themselves, otherwise seems stuck in a time warp of ancient programming and then Anderson Cooper, at a time zone when Anderson Cooper wouldn’t be on television. I’m picking nits, perhaps, but in a great production, these problems would be addressed.
The bottom line, however, remains with the messy source material, an intended dialogue opener that instead boxes itself in with too many one-dimensional stereotypes. It’s a play about caring, yet we hardly care about anyone in it.
Hot Dog plays through June 1 at Nova Southeastern University’s Black Box Theatre at Don Taft University Center, 3301 College Ave., Davie. Performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $35. Visit thinkingcaptheatre.com or call (813) 220-1546