“Red Dog Howls,” the new play by Alexander Dinelaris at New York Theater Workshop about the generational aftereffects of unspeakable tragedy, is unflinching, thought-provoking, and harrowing. Central to the affair is the astonishing performance of Kathleen Chalfant, as an aged survivor who has spent seventy years living with the gruesome secret at the heart of the play. Chalfant has previously given unforgettable performances in the original New York productions of “Angels in America” and “Wit.” Add “Red Dog Howls” to that list.
The play opens with Michael (Alfredo Narciso) — a third-generation Armenian-American — talking of sins so terrible that they cannot be absolved. The burden of these passes on to following generations, even when they are unaware of the immobilizing secrets that shadow their parents or grandparents.
Much of the action centers on his relationship with the 91-year-old Rose (Chalfant), whom he meets during his investigation into family history courtesy of an enigmatic letter he finds among his deceased father’s possessions. The result is a mystery that takes a horrifying turn when Rose reveals the events surrounding her escape from extermination during the Armenian Genocide in 1915.
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Dinelaris’ script is sprinkled only sparsely with ominous hints, and there’s a worrying lack of drama in the early sections of the play. But viewers who stick with it will be rewarded in the final third, when the filters come off; as Chalfant relates the central event of the story, the inhumanity is horrific and all too plainly real.
Give Chalfant a good monologue and she can hold you rapt. Although she drifts through the early stages of the play like a specter, it’s Rose herself who is haunted as the actress masterfully lays the emotional groundwork for the explosion that will ultimately occur. When it does, Chalfant renders the horror and pain of the past with startling authenticity, easily persuading viewers to forgive minor flaws in the writing at the top of the show.
Alfredo Narciso is sturdy as the storyteller caught up in an old family tragedy, with Florencia Lozano plays the smaller role of Michael’s very pregnant wife.
Director Ken Rus Schmoll (Will Eno’s “Middletown”) keeps things moving, with nothing to distract from the power of the text and of the central performance. The physical production is simple, with three playing areas spread out across the wide NYTW stage. Schmoll makes continued use of a melancholy violin in the distance for transitions.
Dinelaris isn’t a well-known name in New York, with local credits including “Still Life,” seen in 2009 at Off Broadway’s MCC Theater as well as additional music and lyrics for the 2003 spoof musical “Zanna, Don’t!” With “Red Dog Howls” and the libretto for the upcoming West End musicalization of the Whitney Houston film “The Bodyguard,” we can anticipate hearing more from him.