The death throes of love are explored with uncompromising savagery in “Dogs Barking,” Richard Zajdlic’s grim, gritty, four-character drama. The show is an example of provocative “in-yer-face-theater,” a British movement that began in the 1990s. Director Anthony Meindl helms with confidence and courage, wringing every bit of ruthlessly unpleasant truth from the tale of two lovers who break up and battle like the barking dogs of the title. In its quest for honesty, the play denies its characters any appealing or vulnerable traits, and Zajdlic’s malevolent confrontations are sometimes painted in overly black colors. What makes the conflicts crackle are potent performances and Meindl’s knowledge of when to play against the script’s more melodramatic exchanges.
After a brief opening, in which Alex (Danielle Hoover) and former live-in boyfriend Neil (Sam Levassar) express love for each other, the story flashes forward into relationship hell. Neil and Alex both want to retain ownership of the flat they once shared and Neil, though prone to habitual cheating, hates the idea of Alex’s new affair with his best friend. The flat forms a basis for their escalating war, an irony since — as cleverly constructed by designer Esben Melbye — it’s a grim, unappetizing place to be. Tensions are exacerbated by a visit from Alex’s jealous sister Vicki (Alison Simpson-Smith). Jason Radeck rounds out the contentious quartet as Ray, Neil’s awkward, cowardly friend who secretly harbors an attraction to Alex.
The building from moderate resentment to massive rage moves too quickly, making it difficult to grasp how these antagonists ever could have loved each other. We have to take the author’s word for their initial closeness, but Levassar and Hoover know how to sock across sexual tension. Levassar’s first-scene nudity isn’t gratuitous, because he uses it to tantalize and manipulate Hoover, and her sharp, attacking responses clearly mask a physical desire she fights to conceal.
Playing the competitive Vicki, Simpson-Smith successfully conveys the duality of saving and sabotaging her sister at the same time. Jason Radeck is up against a tougher challenge, since the character of Ray is less integral to the piece, and his thick accent is often difficult to decipher. But he’s consistently funny, and he has an unforgettable moment pounding up and down on the sofa, simulating sexual intercourse like a crazed teenager, after hearing Neil has resumed his affair with Alex.
Hoover’s Alex is electric enough to get under the skin of any man, and her magnetism justifies Levassar’s obsessions. She also realistically implies, without being overt, a growing sense of fear at Neil’s anger.
The vicious, mesmerizing heart of the production is Levassar. Narcissistic, amoral, cunning and dangerous by turns, his body language has a working-class swagger, and he flashes a smile that alternates between boyish charm and lethal villainy. By the end, he’s unremittingly monstrous yet — like every instinctive, intuitive actor — he lets us see all his motivations and drives.
After a shocking and sadistic encounter, the playwright pulls back too soon, robbing the climax of needed emotional punch. Director Meindl minimizes awareness of this shortcoming with sensitive staging of the final scene, showing the lovers as they were and dramatizing how early affection can erode into horrifying hatred.