Hard Times: New York Theater Workshop Has a Real Dog On Its Hands, but 45 Bleecker Street Does Justice to The Exonerated

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The cast of ‘The Exonerated.’ (Courtesy Carol Rosegg)

ONSTAGE, APPARENTLY, EVERY atrocity is entitled to its own atrocity.

Two springs ago, the Roundabout Theatre Company ended its season with one of the worst plays to reach Broadway in the last few years, The People In the Picture, an insipid musical about the Holocaust and family secrets. Now, with Alexander Dinelaris’s Red Dog Howls, New York Theater Workshop is offering a pretentious melodrama about the Armenian genocide and, yes, more family secrets. With any luck, next season will bring a jukebox musical about the Cambodian killing fields, or perhaps a door-slamming sex farce set in Darfur.

Mr. Dinelaris’s play, which opened Monday night in a production directed by Ken Rus Schmoll and starring the estimable Kathleen Chalfant, isn’t quite so ridiculously far-fetched. But its plot is unconvincing, its shocking revelations incredible—that is, not at all credible—and its language overwrought and unnatural. The characters believe they haven’t earned salvation (more on that to come), but the play itself has a single saving grace: Ms. Chalfant, whose elegance and sensitivity give her cartoon-character role—a domineering, withholding, wounded Armenian-American grandmother—texture and humanity. In lesser hands, the part—with its Sophie’s Choice-topping climatic twist—would be as unconvincing as the script.

Red Dog Howls opens with Michael Kiriakos (Alfredo Narciso) addressing the audience in a prologue that is both pretentious and portentous—“There are sins from which we can never be absolved; I know this, because I have committed one”—before shifting to a domestic scene between Michael and his pregnant wife, Gabriella (Florencia Lozano), that is less orotund but equally portentous. Michael has a loving relationship with his wife; Michael is emotionally brittle; Michael’s grandmother abandoned his grandfather and father; Michael’s mother abandoned his father and Michael; Michael has guilt; Michael has a slip of paper bearing an address he found in his dead father’s belongings.

So Michael goes to the address, in Washington Heights, where he finds Rose (Ms. Chalfant), who turns out to be his ostensibly long-lost grandmother. He has always thought himself to be Greek; now he learns he’s Armenian, and he becomes fascinated with his new culture (without acknowledging that he’d had an old one). Rose feeds him soup, which he describes as “nourishing,” and tells him stories, which he also describes as “nourishing.” She tells him he must be strong. She tells him about the genocide. Gabriella becomes angry, not unfairly, as Michael spends less and less time with his pregnant wife and more and more time with his newly rediscovered grandmother and his newly found culture. This is when you start to suspect the play was sponsored by the Armenian Appreciation Society. Eventually—after, again, some shockingly shocking revelations that I won’t spoil and that no doubt would have made the Armenian Appreciation Society pull its funding—Michael and Gabriella’s baby is born, and Rose dies, and Michael is happy and content, a proud Armenian.

Red Dog Howls is a strange piece of work, a meditation on fatherhood and familial obligation and an argument for filial devotion that tries at the same time to give an educational-programming history lesson on the 20th century’s first holocaust. It doesn’t work, and that’s too bad. If nothing else, the Armenians deserve better.

MEANWHILE, OTHER ATROCITIES are getting the hauntingly effective staging they deserve.

The Exonerated tells the pared-down and (actually) shocking real stories of six Americans wrongly sentenced to death and freed before their executions, when they were proved innocent. Nearly all the dialogue in the play is spoken verbatim, pulled from transcripts, court documents and interviews. The production is stark: 10 stools across a dark stage with 10 actors in them, 10 music stands in front of them and 10 spotlights overhead. There is little artifice, no hysteria. It is totally engrossing.

The play debuted off Broadway in 2002, and promptly became a long-running hit for the Culture Project. It has since been made into a Court TV movie and revived around the world. Last week it opened in a 10th-anniversary revival at 45 Bleecker Street directed by the actor Bob Balaban and featuring a rotating cast of celebrity actors—Stockard Channing, Brian Dennehy, Delroy Lindo and Chris Sarandon are in the opening cast—and it’s every bit as convincing as it’s ever been.

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen wrote the script, which does a masterful job of intertwining the six stories. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the work is that the couple managed to locate six people who were both wrongly convicted and also articulate, introspective and even lyrical about their horrific experiences. This makes their achievement as much journalistic as dramaturgical, and the combination is deeply affecting. It is chilling to hear how these victims—mostly poor and Southern, often black—were railroaded by police and prosecutors, abused in prison and, in at least one case, how much time elapsed between exoneration of guilt and release from prison.

There is some solace to be taken in the fact that, for most of these wrongfully convicted individuals, the system, in the long run, worked: DNA testing became available and a conviction was overturned; new evidence was found and a case was reopened. One person for whom it did not was Sunny Jacobs, portrayed by Ms. Channing. In 1976, she and her husband were convicted of murdering a police officer; the conviction was overturned in 1992, after the rightful murderer confessed—in 1979. In 1990, her husband was executed in the electric chair.

Ms. Jacobs, who will play herself later in the run, was in the audience the night I saw the show. She got a louder ovation than any of the actors, which was nice but doesn’t begin to compensate.

editorial@observer.com