Larry Clarke and friend in The Dog Problem(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Larry Clarke and friend in The Dog Problem
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
David Rabe writes very difficult plays, and his latest--The Dog Problem, now being given its New York premiere at The Atlantic Theater Company is no exception.

Rabe has written four brilliant dramas: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Streamers, Sticks and Bones, and, of course, Hurlyburly his scathing portrait of Hollywood. He has also written one comic masterpiece: In the Boom Boom Room. Yet in the last 10 years, with the exception of a couple of good screenplays his work has not compared well with his past successes. Plays like Those the River Keeps, A Question of Mercy and, now, The Dog Problem have missed the mark.

As in many of Rabe's plays, the themes and variations of The Dog Problem are driven by men who still want to be boys. This is nothing more than an extended junior high school recess yarn beefed up for adult male actors who enjoy long-winded speeches. Set in New York City--specifically, on the corner of Bowery and Grand--the play is about Ray (Larry Clarke), a likeable, unassuming guy who gets himself and his dog Buddy into a pot full of small-time trouble. Seems Ray has taken a local babe, Teresa (Andrea Gabriel) to bed; he let Buddy stay in the room during there lovemaking, and the dog may or may not have gotten into some hokey pokey with Theresa. The woman soon tells her brother, tough guy Joey (David Wike) of the episode, and Joey tells his Uncle Malvolio, the local godfather. An ultimatum is issued to Ray and Buddy: One of them has to go the way of the gun.

Rabe stretches a nice, quick story into a two plus hour marathon of masculine psychobabble that only the strong survive; I'm not talking about the actors, but the audience. Ray gets wrapped up deeper and deeper in a game of revenge that becomes so complex it takes a psychic street thug named Ronnie (Joe Pacheco) to try to unravel Ray's fate. In what has got to be one of the grandest monologues in recent memory, Ray tries to reason with his dog on the significance of why Buddy will die rather than Ray. A dog is a man's best friend, but is the animal willing to die for its owner? This monologue is a winner in a sea of dense nonsense, and Buddy's droll demeanor during the speech is priceless.

The struggle of several of the actors against the stereotypical nature of their roles is impressive. Victor Argo as the wheelchair-ridden Uncle Malvolio is the best of the bunch. Director Scott Ellis doesn't have the best ear for directing a play about urban cave dwellers; at times, The Dog Problem seems not be directed at all. Lots of lines fall flat and several scenes become moribund.

Is there some great meaning behind all that befalls poor Ray on the corner of Bowery and Grand? There's a puzzle here, but Rabe doesn't give us the answers, offering instead a play filled with ambiguities.