For those of you who were desperately hoping to find a play combining squids, smelly clowns, tumors, psychotic angels and Andy Warhol, dream no more. A Man’s Best Friend, currently running at Tribeca’s WalkerSpace Theatre, encompasses all this — and a fast-talking Grand Swami to boot. For those, shall we say, more selective theatre-goers simply searching for a play with direction, purpose, or even a plot, avoid this Jeffrey M. Jones play at all costs.
Somewhere in this jumbled mess of a hallucinogenic trip there slumbers a reason why it should be viewed by the paying public, but due in part to the constantly shifting directions, that reason is never allowed to surface. Unfortunately, the fact that it lacks any cohesive plot is only the beginning of the show’s problems, for tacked onto the lamentable script are the shallow performances, baffling lighting effects, and did I mention the squids? Whether it was aiming for a satirical slant or farcical objective, Friend ultimately doesn’t deliver anything solid enough to grasp.
Here I would normally try to sketch out the basic details of the play’s plot, but even with the script sitting right beside me, I’m still at a loss. From what I could glean, Sluggo is a clown with serious body odor and aggression issues who finds solitary pleasure in kicking his dog, stabbing his brother, and beating his wife to death. Where Andy Warhol, lethal squid babies, and Officer Betty Brown fit into all this is still a deep mystery to me, and yet I have the oddly comforting impression that I will never receive an understandable explanation.
The product of Undermain Theatre, a company known for producing new and experimental plays out of Dallas, Texas, this Jones play was cultivated alongside the works of Caryl Churchill, Dario Fo, Samuel Becket, and Suzan Lori-Parks. The difference here is that the aforementioned playwrights might leave their audiences bewildered, but never abandoned. Jones manages to completely toss the audience away with the shattered aftereffects of his agitated script, forsaking that all-important factor: making us care.
That is what mainly causes this disturbingly drab evening (interminably long even at eighty minutes) to miss every possible opportunity. We just don’t care. Director Katherine Owens tantalizingly offers bits of character from time to time, but just as we are adjusting to the view of them as people, the empathy evaporates at the appearance of a cheap gag or distracted staging choice.
Returning to the role he originated in Texas, Tom Lenaghen gives Sluggo the sort of half-baked intensity mingled with over-played physicality that results in little more than annoyance. At the times where he is delivering monologues directly to the audience, while reminiscent of amateur stand-up comedy, Lenaghen is at least watchable. Otherwise, his Sluggo is less title character and more dragging dead weight.
The redeeming performers include Mary Shultz (Sluggo’s wife with a former penchant for the name and habits of her current husband), Arthur Aulisi (Steve, Sluggo’s adopted and unlucky in love brother), and Heidi Schreck (the provocative and deadly Angel). However, the overall result was akin to watching each actor stumble through their own private play, with absolutely no sense of cohesion or understanding to their performances. As they do literally at the end of the show, these promising performers were stumbling zombie-like across the stage, completely unaware of whom or what they were pursuing.
“Was it about a dog?” my weary companion asked when the lights came up (we were also awaiting another false blackout, courtesy of lighting designer Aaron Mooney). I honestly don’t know. Was it crass, embarrassing, formless, clichéd, and irritating? The Great Swami says yes, and not even someone running around the stage in a squid suit can save that.