“There are sins, for which we can never be absolved,” begins Alexander Dinelaris’ moving, albeit flawed play, Red Dog Howls, at New York Theatre Workshop. The man who utters those words is Michael Kiriakos (Alfredo Narciso), who rediscovers his Armenian heritage even as he and wife Gabriella (Florencia Lozano) are anticipating the birth of their first child.
The play, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, is constructed as a mystery of sorts. Michael comes into contact with Rose (Kathleen Chalfant), the grandmother who had abandoned the family decades before Michael was ever born. Her reasons for doing so remain unspoken for much of the play, although when Rose finally tells her full story it is extremely powerful.
Chalfant’s no-holds-barred performance is one of the primary reasons for the speech’s effectiveness. As she relates the harrowing details that link Rose’s personal story to the larger Armenian genocide, her voice and body quake with such heart-rending emotion that it’s likely to leave audience members stunned.
Narciso is equally compelling in a less showy role, as much of his work is comprised of expository narration or reactive silences. Still, he imbues his performance with nuanced facial expressivity, charm and humor in line delivery, and other subtle mannerisms.
Lozano provides shades of affection and resentment in Gabriella’s exchanges with her husband, but the playwright hasn’t done enough to really explore the volatility of this relationship dynamic. As a result, a scene in which the couple bickers at the dinner table after Michael comes home late one night feels inorganic.
Even worse, the playwright seems to have skipped a crucial step in showing the decision-making process that Michael goes through that leads to a fateful decision towards the play’s end. It’s not that the character’s action is unmotivated, but there’s a forced quality to the way the scene plays out that makes it seem like Dinelaris was rushing towards a dramatic conclusion instead of letting us see the journey.