Dog Paddle (or, struggling inelegantly against drowning) – Written By Reto Finger; Translated by Lily Sykes; Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon; Larry Sousa, Scenic + Lighting Design; Chip Schoonmaker, Costume Design; David Reiffel, Sound Design. Presented by Bridge Repertory Theater at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge through August 14.
When a play begins with the dour line, “I can’t do it anymore… go on like this,” it’s not exactly a classic launch for a comedy. But “Dog Paddle”, now making its American premiere as Bridge Rep’s (fourth) season opener, is an intriguing and darkly comic one-act that takes an absurd but strangely comprehensible look at the inherent insanity of (unhealthy) relationships.
The opening line is delivered by Charlotte, the beautiful and intelligent but emotionally vapid 30-something who makes the announcement to Robert, her partner of seven years who is busily hanging photos of the couple’s recently completed trip to the South of France. The stunned Robert protests, producing said photos as evidence of how happy they are – to no avail. The relationship is over. No discussion. Charlotte has decided to move on, and has already lined up her future ex-lover to boot.
Showing all the compassion of a corporate executive announcing “restructuring” layoffs to factory workers, Charlotte lays out a precise plan for the how the breakup will proceed, with the first edict being that the couple’s friends will be divided into three categories – hers, his and the exclusive mutual friend group. The latter appears to be comprised solely of Ingrid, a study in low self-esteem that makes a habit of pursuing Charlotte’s castoffs while the wounds are still fresh. Charlotte also makes the concession that Robert will be allowed to live in the basement until he finds a suitable place to live, which turns out to be much longer than she planned as Robert stays on through two relationships, a marriage and a baby – all in the play’s 51 minutes.
The story is told in a series of short vignettes that are alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, as the detached Charlotte puts her damaged victims through the paces in a way that suggests that she is incapable of understanding that her actions could actually cause others pain. Her emotional core is efficiently distilled in one off-handed suggestion to her husband that they should get a dog – because it would look good in a photo with the baby. But despite the seeming ridiculousness of many of the scenes, none of them are patently implausible, as anyone who’s ever been in a non-Lifetime Movie Network relationship can tell you.
“Dog Paddle” features a strong cast, led by exceptional performances by Esme Allen as Charlotte (who never lets her cold-hearted character drift into caricature) and Omar Robinson as the dejected Robert. Bridgette Hayes, Jeremy Browne, and Ed Hoopman are also solid in their roles. Guy Ben-Aharon’s direction is fast-paced yet seamless, and is his second go-round with this piece, having directed a staged reading (with Dakota Shepherd and Nael Nacer in the lead roles) in 2013. One of the interesting elements of this production was the audience reaction, where in addition to the consistent laughs generated during the performance, multiple times a single audience member would explode in laughter, as if the scene struck a unique chord with the individual. Come and see where the insanity resonates with you. For more info, go to: http://www.bridgerep.org/