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The Rousuck Review: "Bad Dog"

Nicholas Griner

You can’t miss it – the giant gash, the cavernous hole, in the living room wall of the set of Bad Dog at Olney Theatre Center. The hole is big enough to drive a car through. That’s exactly what happened a few days before the play begins.

Molly Drexler, a 40-year-old Hollywood screenwriter, fell – no, catapulted – off the wagon after a decade of sobriety. She plowed her Prius into her living room and ended up in the hospital.

Bad Dog, by Jennifer Hoppe-House, is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. It’s also part of the American tradition of domestic dramas about addiction. Think Long Day’s Journey into Night or Days of Wine and Roses

Like those plays, Bad Dog is a work of theatrical realism. Alcoholism, certainly Molly’s alcoholism, might involve drinking yourself out of reality. But where Molly’s mind goes in these episodes doesn’t lead to any flights of playwriting fancy in Bad Dog. It merely leads Molly to black out.

Under Jeremy B. Cohen’s direction, Holly Twyford vividly portrays Molly as 50 percent narcissism, 50 percent self-pity. She’s the baby of the family, and she’s never grown out of this role – demanding attention and getting it. In this instance, Molly remembers how the drinking started, but not where it went or how it ended, as she explains to her sisters.

Molly’s whole dysfunctional family -- not just her sisters -- descends on the home she shares with her wife. This uneasy family reunion is one of several places where writer Jennifer Hoppe-House gets heavy-handed with exposition.

For example, there’s no need for the sisters to tell each other that their mother and stepmother have never met – not in 30 years. The sisters are well aware of this. Like the play’s protagonist, Jennifer Hoppe-House is a Hollywood screenwriter. Her credits include Nurse Jackie and the current Netflix series, Grace and Frankie.

Bad Dog is her first full-length play, and her TV background may partly explain why some characters are thinly drawn. Molly’s mother – played by Naomi Jacobson -- veers toward the stereotypical worrying Jewish mother. And Molly’s stepmother, a Hispanic former stripper -- played by Gladys Rodriguez – primarily serves as comic relief.

In a family whose members are driven by self-interest, it’d be a welcome contrast to get a deeper look at the bond between Molly and her wife, Abby. Abby’s a therapist, and Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan portrays her as warm and low-key. But she has only known Molly since Molly’s been sober. She’s stunned by Molly’s reaction to the idea of treatment.

Bad Dog contains a couple surprises – though some may see them coming. To the playwright’s credit, she leaves the ending unresolved.

How you view Molly’s fate depends primarily on whether you’re a glass-half-empty or a glass-half-full kind of person. It’s an ending guaranteed to prompt debate in the parking lot, which is all to the good.

Olney’s production is part of Bad Dog’s rolling world premiere. The play was produced in Orlando last spring. Director Cohen keeps the action moving, and the dialogue is sharp. But some secondary characters and events are too pat – especially for a play about something as messy as alcoholism. At times, you could even say Bad Dog’s bark is worse than its bite.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.