Volume 76, Number 13 | August 16 - 22, 2006

Theater

The tall tail of the wounded sister and the Shih Tzu

Ben Coopersmith, Patrick Melville (as Paul) & Wrenn Schmidt (as Jenny) in Christopher Boal’s outrageously dark canine caper, “Crazy for the Dog,” at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre.

By JERRY TALLMER

Christopher Boal pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and diddled with it for a couple of seconds. “There he is,” he said. “The same as on the flyer for the play.” The picture was of a fluffy, perky, worried-looking little dog with hair dangling before his eyes. Yes, same as on the flyer for “Crazy for the Dog.”

Playwright Boal pulled what’s called a PSP out of another pocket, and diddled with it until it showed a sidewalk scene, as from a film, of a little dog straining at his leash. “That’s him too. It’s from the short we made called ‘Walking Charley.’ Eleven or twelve minutes. Won some awards. Joe Bova’s in it – ”

Joe Bova, the warmly remembered somber clown who, as a cluck of a Prince, bounced upon a mattress with Princess Carol Burnett all the way back in 1959, died this past March at 81. He was Christopher Boal’s stepfather — husband of Boal’s mother Lee Lawson.

“In ‘Walking Charley,’ ” said the stepson, “he’s a crotchety old guy who proclaims: ‘You walk a dog on the left side, you walk a woman on the right side. Whatsa matter, you don’t like women?’ Improvised the whole thing. A funny man.”

The dog in the film may be “Charley,” and in “Crazy for the Dog,” Boal’s hit nightmare play that’s been extended through August 26 at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, the kidnapped kanine may be “Pete,” but in real life — at home in Park Slope with Boal and Boal’s wife Michele Houlihan — he is a Shih Tzu named Boji, pronounced Bodge.

“Michele bought him at a CACC [Center for Animal Care and Control] in East New York. He’d been found in an alleyway or something. Michele had had a Sherpa in the Himalayas with that name. I did not want to anthropomorphize my dog. Not a name like Andrew or something. So it’s Bodge.”

The dognapper in Boal’s drama (his first full-length play) is an extremely stressed young woman named Jennie (actress Wrenn Schmidt), who through this single bizarre, barbaric action — consigning her brother’s beloved Shih Tzu to the tender mercies of her sociopathic boyfriend Kevin (Ryan Tramont), whose own mania is pegged to rare baseball cards — seeks to make up for all the wrongs, the betrayals, the desertions she’s ever suffered in life.

And they are many, real and imagined. Her brother Paul (Patrick Melville) has committed his share of them, as well as his share of lies to her, to his wife Sarah (Christine Verleny), and, of course, to himself. It all comes out in the ensuing pressure cooker, under the ministrations of director Eric Parness.

Would Chris Boal think it fair to characterize Jennie — with her tireless taunts and threats and enactments of the death of a little dog under the wheels of a car on 125th Street — as, well, a sadist?

Long thought by the playwright. Finally:

“I would say she’s in a lot of pain. Flailing. Desperate. And trying to fix it. Movies are for narrative, telling stories. But theater should be extreme. A play should be extreme. Else why do it?” said Boal, with force. “I learned that from my mentors — Curt Dempster, artistic director of EST [Off-Broadway’s Ensemble Studio Theater]; playwright Arthur Giron, who wrote ‘Edith Stein’; and David Willinger, my teacher at CCNY, who brought me back into theater after I’d been away from it for six years.”

Yes, sure, there is some of Christopher Boal in every line of “Crazy for the Dog.” More, maybe, than in “The Continuing Adventures of Dick Danger,” the long-running late-night adventure serial that he, its author, characterizes as “sort of like Sam Spade meets Monte Python on acid.”

He first wrote “Crazy for the Dog” four years ago, then tinkered with it, “turned it into something else, got sick of what it became, then went back” — four years later — “to the very first draft that I wrote up at EST’s summer barn at Lexington, New York.”

It all sprang out of the actuality of Boji, or Bodge, the pooch Michele picked up at CACC.

“Not to be cute about it, but I did go crazy. I transferred my own wounded inner child into that dog. What it means to put your love into a dog. My family had cats” — like Jenny in the play. “I wanted to think what’s the worst thing that could happen. The wages of putting your love into the wrong place. Like a turning wheel — more and more and more, and it just doesn’t stop.”

And Jennie? Where does she come from?

Another long thought. Then:

“Jennie is an amalgam of different people in my family’s past. A complicated family. It would take a geometry lesson to track it with ease.”

A geography lesson?

“That too.”

Curly-haired, cheerful Christoher Boal was born August 3, 1964, when his family — one of his two families, theatrical (mama) and philosophical (papa) — was living on Bedford Street in Greenwich Village.
“I take my own experiences growing up and turn them sideways. After two years at Carnegie-Mellon I realized that to pay that much to learn how to act was foolish. Turned my back on theater, went down to Washinton, wore suits.

“At 27 I enrolled at CCNY to study languages — and within two weeks I ended up in theater.”
He’s now at work on a couple of musicals. One of them is called “Bad Guys Don’t Know Dick.” At least it will keep him clear of all those people who after seeing “Crazy for the Dog” come up to tell him animal stories of their own.
 
CRAZY FOR THE DOG. By Christopher Boal. Directed by Eric Parness. A Rachel Reiner production in association with Jean Cocteau Repertory, held over through August 26 at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery, (212) 677-0060, ext. 16.

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