We never see the dog, Carrot, in Daniel Damiano's Day of the Dog, currently seeing its world premiere courtesy of St. Louis Actors' Studio. We hear him, and we see the evidence of his aggressiveness in the bandages on his master's arms, but there is no physical sign of the dog's existence in the precisely feng shui'd home of yuppie achievers Paul and Julianne (Steve Isom and Tamara Kenny). Speaking as a dog owner, that's weird. No chew toys floating around the family room, no doggie bed in the corner, no obviously hairy cushion on the sofa for Carrot to call his own? No wonder he's so angry.
But then Carrot's not really important here. Only Paul and Julianne matter in this house, and unfortunately, they don't matter to each other.
Julianne is a hard-driving interior designer/philosopher who demands everyone work around her schedule. She runs the house, the family and the show — she's the alpha dog. Paul is a gamma dog at best; he's a facilitator, a mediator between his wife's demanding personality and the rest of the world. He's also Carrot's favorite chew toy. Tasked with the responsibility of finding someone who can make Carrot behave, Paul invites canine expert Vadislav (Jason Grubbe) to work his magic.
Vadislav's method requires him to meet with the entire family before he meets Carrot. He's a precise thinker and speaker, a straight-to-the-point interrogator with a heavy Russian accent and a solemn weightiness. He's most definitely the ur-alpha dog, which gets Julianne's back up immediately. What follows is a series of arguments, retreats and revelations, as Vadislav's probing questions about Paul and Julianne's feelings about the dog tease out family secrets and simmering resentments.
Damiano stacks the deck against Julianne somewhat, making her so self-centered as to be almost unlikable. She orders Paul around as if he were a child, and she does so with a fixed and frosty grin that's confined only to her mouth; the more you see it, the more it looks like a snarl. Tamara Kenny finds the small moments when she's not bristling at her husband and stretches them out to reveal the hurt and lonely woman hiding behind the snarling. Those moments of humanizing softness are hard-won but valuable.
Paul may be more genial, but the more time you spend with him, the more grating his neediness becomes. Much of Steve Isom's characterization appears to be bland, Nice White Guy 101, until he finally snaps. Then the quiet sadness and passive helpfulness give way to a nasty edge that he uses against Julianne and himself, to some degree. It's a stunning reversal, one that changes your perception of everything he has done and said up to that point.
But Jason Grubbe's Vadislav is best in show. Grubbe is charming in his bluntness with the self-involved couple, he tells rambling stories that end with unexpected violence and he has the deadpan delivery of an arch comedian. Grubbe is also an expert practitioner of stillness, able to stand unflinching in the face of horrible confessions and furious tirades. Toward the end, Day of the Dog becomes an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink of neuroses and accusations, which Grubbe endures like the Rock of Gibraltar. It's too much, and the play seems to lose its way. The final scene seems anticlimactic and too sweet in light of all that has passed. But when an angry dog barks for two hours and then ceases, you don't ask why it stops. You simply appreciate the silence.