A play that opens with the sound of heavy panting coming from the darkened stage is bound to be intriguing. Narrated by a dog, Book-It’s new production of The Art of Racing in the Rain offers dozens of unique moments like this. It’s an irresistible treat for dog-lovers and a study in the rewards that come when an author pushes the envelope by selecting a protagonist with a one-of-a-kind perspective.
Enzo (David S. Hogan) is a dog in search of his own humanity. Chatty and observant, he has been studying his human companions for years and — thanks to a National Geographic documentary on Mongolian spirituality he saw on TV — he is convinced that when he dies, he will be reincarnated as a man. An old dog, Enzo has been pursuing a zen-like path to enlightenment for years, always with the goal of being reborn able to interact with the people he loves on their level. “My soul is very human,” Enzo informs the audience, his tone delightfully guileless and hopeful.
It’s no spoiler to warn that, Old Yeller style, a tear-jerker death for Enzo is on the horizon. The play opens on the day of his death, possibly via euthanasia, though it’s never made explicit. The play immediately back-pedals to Enzo’s puppy days, when a young wannabe race car driver, Denny Swift (Eric Riedmann), picks him out of a pool of puppies for sale.
A typical dog, Enzo idolizes his bland yet affable master, immersing himself in the man’s love of fast cars. Through their years together, the two are loyal and inseparable, even as Denny endures crisis after crisis, from minor to life-shattering. Hogan’s emotionally fluid and energetic interpretation of the challenging inhuman role is the indisputable jewel of the production. A production which is unfortunately hampered by a script that drags itself out to three hours and lacks enough inventiveness in its plot to keep the length from making itself keenly felt.
Seattle author Garth Stein’s 2008 novel isn’t exactly War and Peace, topping out at just a bit more than 300 pages, but you wouldn't guess it from the stage adaptation. Playwright Myra Platt would have done well to lop about an hour out of her interpretation, which settles into each and every scene comfortably, and then dwells there. For pages upon pages of dialogue. The result is a production that gives equal weight to throwaway mood-setting bits of interplay and crucial dramatic moments. The simple predictability of Stein’s plot (at times even broadcasting what's next on the agenda) doesn't help.
It’s obvious from early in Act One that Denny’s saintly wife, Eve (Sylvie Davidson) — remarkable only for being blander and more affable than he is — has a brain tumor and will certainly die. Then it’s just a matter of waiting for it to happen, which might be a heart wrenching journey for a reader of the novel, but doesn’t make for compelling drama when presented as a series of belabored scenes, the subtext of which is frustratingly apparent to the audience but mystifying to the characters.
If it wasn’t for Hogan’s outstanding performance as a dog with a dream that transcends his family’s mundane woes, the play would be little more than a kitchen sink melodrama. His connection with the audience is immediate and irresistible. Crawling around the stage floor alternately barking and expounding articulately on spiritual matters, Hogan’s Enzo is the most trustworthy of unreliable narrators. He is, after all, an animal that has studied TV shows like Judge Judy for clues as to why humans behave the way they do — not exactly the best source material.
Enzo is often baffled by the actions of his master and frustrated when he cannot gain clarity. Yet when he tells the audience, “A race car driver must be selfish,” it is the most succinct explanation of Denny’s conflicting attitudes toward his avocation and his family presented in the course of the play. Even when Enzo gets it wrong, his misinterpretations of human behavior are uncannily true on a more basic, animal level.
Director Carol Roscoe proposed the adaptation of The Art of Racing in the Rain four years ago, and she admirably rises to the challenge of keeping things moving on stage, even during the bits that lag. However, it’s interesting to consider the extent to which her interpretation of the book aided and abetted the single-dimensionality of the human characters. Eve’s parents are presented as malevolent Mercer Island one-percenters, so interchangeable that Enzo refers to them as “the twins.” Denny is a nice guy. Period. His wife is angelic. His daughter is sweet. And on it goes.
Had Roscoe encouraged the actors to allow a bit of sarcasm to creep into Eve’s ever-supportive remarks or genuine disappointment to haunt her parents' predictable elitist comments about blue-collar Denny, the three hours might have sped by like a Formula One racecar on a flat track.
If you go: The Art of Racing in the Rain runs through May 13 at Book-It. $22-$44. For more information, visit www.book-it.org.