Every unhappy couple is unhappy in its own way, to rephrase Tolstoy — but not every unhappy couple is equally intriguing. Daniel Damiano's Day of the Dog, directed by Milton Zoth at 59E59 Theaters, examines a toxic marriage and brings a violent pet into the mix to look at how a couple's relationship went to the dogs. It's a provocative premise, but the story doesn't go quite far enough to have bite.
Paul (Steve Isom), a diffident accountant and chef manqué, has been viciously attacked numerous times by the family dog, Carrot (whose offstage barks we hear occasionally). After several pet specialists fail to tame the animal, Paul hires Vadislav (Jason Grubbe), a Russian-accented "Canine Relations Specialist" who has a penchant for tuna sandwiches and vodka. Vadislav insists that Paul's assertive wife, Julianne (Michelle Hand), a driven, self-made interior decorator, be present to discuss Carrot. But it soon becomes apparent that the family pet is not the real subject of discussion. As Vadislav asks the couple about Brittany (their absent daughter), their dog, and themselves, Paul and Julianne unleash a pack of growling grudges and snarling recriminations that threaten to tear their marriage and family apart once and for all.
Day of the Dog begins like a comedy, with Grubbe's ponderous entrance as the mysterious dog whisperer and Isom's nervous welcome as a terrified husband (bandages on his arms and fingers hide wounds from Carrot attacks). The first act has such potential for humor that it's a shame the laughs are so few, especially when the second half of the play descends into darker territory. Hand does tap into the humor of the controlling Julianne, baring her teeth as she smiles when Vadislav tries to psychoanalyze her. And Grubbe, keeping a gentle rein on his Vadislav, amiably drifts between Paul and Julianne, like a skiff delivering messages between two isolated islands.
Julianne's controlling side is evoked in Christie Johnston's set, a well-lit southern Florida living room with bright yellows and browns and nary a seashell out of place. Teresa Doggett's costumes — Julianne's loud, rainbow dress and Paul's Easter-egg-green shirt — suggest the couple's vain attempts to look happy, but it's obvious from their first interaction that neither has liked the other much for a long time.
Vadislav's therapy session with Paul and Julianne does keep Day of the Dog engaging to the end. One of the script's strengths is its ability to volley the audience's allegiance from one spouse to the other. Both have had a major part in this marriage's failure, and both have as much a claim to sympathy as to censure. Isom and Hand play incredibly well off each other in this respect, with echoes of George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
But the play's revelations about Paul and Julianne are not particularly compelling. Hand and Isom's savage performances — both are wonderful when going at each other — prepare the audience for confessions of heinous deeds, and the story does flirt with suggestions that these two people have done horrible things, not only to each other but to Brittany and the family dog.
As soon as these possibilities are entertained, however, Day of the Dog seems afraid to make its characters truly memorable and leaves any chance of a provocative revelation behind, like an abandoned chew toy.