This weekend saw the shattering of yet another theatrical truism: in this instance, the maxim that a bad play takes as much work as a good play. Outward Spiral's Dog Opera is a bad play, and it is so much more work than a good play, particularly if you are an audience member. The production clocks in at just under three hours, meaning that playwright Constance Congdon has created an epic out of decidedly non-epic material: the frustration of two characters who cannot get laid.
Certainly there is some potential for art there--after all, what was Eyes Wide Shut if not a three-hour examination of an unsuccessful booty call? But then, Stanley Kubrick was a master ironist, and he knew that there was an inherent thrill in watching Tom Cruise, with his frat-boy good looks and ambiguous sexuality, strike out again and again. Congdon is not an ironist--she's hardly even a playwright--and Dog Opera rambles from one disconnected scene to another, never settling on anything resembling a plot and never discovering in its characters anything more than a sitcom-like flow of humorless punch lines and shallow quirks.
This is the sort of theatrical experience that can be tremendously perplexing for a critic. After all, I was seated in a theater that was filled with laughter. But then I'm reluctant to rely on the judgment of an audience that laughed and then actually applauded at the mere onstage mention of Duluth--the theatrical equivalent of crying out "My compliments to the chef!" when somebody serves you Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
Congdon's play, directed here by Jef Hall-Flavin, follows Peter (played by 15 Head artistic associate Leif Jurgensen), and Madeline (played by Kim Schultz) as they experience a series of unsatisfying relationships. If there is a sadder theatrical sight than two good comic actors wrestling with substandard material, I don't know it. Schultz, for example, has a series of scenes where she performs little puppet shows about her miserable dating life--gimmicky but intermittently funny--yet otherwise has little to do but grump around, behaving pathetically whenever in the presence of a potential dating partner. A sickly scene in which she hooks up with an ex and hovers above him, twittering compliments and professing her love, strips away any sympathy for the character.
In the meanwhile, and only tangentially connected to the main story, the play also follows the non-adventures of a male hustler as he moves from motel room to motel room, servicing married men and watching nature documentaries. This character is played with a series of aw-shucks floor-kicking and shoulder-raising mannerisms by Topher Brattain, whom I last saw in the Illusion Theater's production of The Laramie Project, depicting a character with exactly the same tics. This was puzzling. It seemed as though the Laramie Project character, a straight college student who auditions for the lead in Angels in America, had somehow wound up on a street corner, bragging about his ability to use his mouth to furtively apply condoms. Poor kid--I guess theater does lead to prostitution, as was feared in the Victorian age.
Most disconcerting, however, are the play's stabs at social commentary, provided by the hustler (subtlety, thy name is jackhammer) and by recurring references to the AIDS crisis. Since this is a play that offers precious little by way of narrative hooks, I was forced to look for clues as to how long it would take for the play to end by tallying up the clichés of socially conscious gay theater. Would the hustler get beaten to death? Would a main character contract HIV? Without giving away too much, yes, to one or the other--or both. But none of it seemed to bring the play any closer to an end.