“Red Dog Howls,” premiering at the El Portal, proceeds to a remarkable 11th-hour confession made, in 1986, by a survivor of the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks. Simply and hauntingly delivered by Kathleen Chalfant, it forthrightly confronts the evil harbored by ordinary people, the guilt of their victims and the measures required to expiate that guilt. The build-up to this testimony, however, is marred by heavy-handed dramaturgy from scribe Alexander Dinelaris, who has yet to bring the artistry of the whole up to that of the last few minutes.
Troubled protagonist Michael Kiriakos (Matthew Rauch) is drinking heavily after the death of his Greek father as vaguely defined identity issues threaten to swamp his new marriage to expectant Gabriella (Darcie Siciliano). An address in Manhattan’s Washington Heights brings him into the orbit of Armenian nonagenarian Vartouhi (Chalfant), living mysteriously and alone among Old World bric-a-brac in a homey parlor (lovingly detailed by designer Tom Buderwitz).
She’s the paternal grandmother Michael never knew, but beyond that, she must be mum. “I can only give you one part at a time,” she insists (there’s even an Armenian word for it: gamatz), signaling we’re in for a series of two-person encounters — some light, some angry, all fraught and suggestive — until the layers of the onion are finally stripped away.
As it turns out, there’s a legit plot reason for Dinelaris’ waiting game, though its appearance in retrospect doesn’t affect the heaviness of what’s come before. But what really weighs down “Red Dog Howls” is Michael’s wearing his woes, and play’s self-importance, on his sleeve.
Periodic blackouts leave Michael spotlighted to articulate the meaning of what we just saw, or highlight the significance of what we’re about to see, or quote Armenian verse and then explain what it means to his tale. Everything, but everything, is spelled out, including the questions stemming from Vartouhi’s fragmented hints (“How was her husband killed?…Why had she stitched the name ‘Yeva’ into the pillow?”) as if Dinelaris doubted our ability to pose or remember them ourselves.
If there’s variety lurking in these monologues, helmer Michael Peretzian hasn’t helped Rauch find it. The prevailing mode is pugnacious pronouncement accompanied by accusatory glare, occasionally broken by a half-smile or catch in the throat. Speeches end with darkly pointed foreshadowing as he steps back into his apartment for a squabble, or into Grandma’s for more parceled-out revelation: “That’s how it all began — the first chapter of a book that nobody should have to read”; “It was the first truly peaceful night’s sleep of my adult life. And maybe the last.”
The women fare better, with Siciliano’s vibrancy welcome in her too-few appearances. Chalfant avoids cliche by finding considerable emotional range in the taciturn, bitter widow whose culinary skill stands in for expressions of concern or affection. That you can see a brief relapse into youthful gaiety coming a long way off — a little brandy, a little dance — doesn’t detract from its poignancy.
To his credit, Dinelaris is interested in examining the impact of ancestral sins on later generations, not in assembling a didactic “genocide play” (though the uninitiated will learn much mournful history from it). Still, we’d be better able to gauge the achievement of each of his aims with a less self-conscious protagonist, as well as themes and meaning less obviously ladled out.