'Four Dogs and a Bone' has some snarl, needs snap

November 13, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The dogs in John Patrick Shanley's "Four Dogs and a Bone" are a producer, a screenwriter and two actresses. The bone they're fighting over is the movie they're shooting. And they will do anything to get what they want.

Here's what they want: The actresses want bigger roles, the screenwriter wants his script to appear on screen unscathed and the producer wants -- make that "needs" -- to bring an $8 million movie in on a $5 million budget.

Judging from his characters' language (some of it X-rated) and back-stabbing tactics, Shanley seems to have intended this quartet of curs to have their teeth bared for most of the evening. And, since he is himself a successful playwright-turned-screenwriter (he won an Oscar for "Moonstruck"), there's reason to believe Shanley may have sharpened his pen on his own experience. But director Steve Goldklang's production at Fell's Point Corner Theatre doesn't seem venal enough.

The chief exception is Darlene Deardorff, who conveys jadedness with a viscerally comic mixture of world weariness and hysteria. Deardorff's Collette, the supposed star of this unnamed movie, is -- like everyone else in this play -- wildly insecure. She practically hisses out the words, "She's so sweet," when describing young Brenda, the first-time actress with whom she shares a trailer. And Deardorff's broad expressions leave no doubt about what Collette's detractors mean when they claim that, since she's primarily a stage actress, she's "too big" on screen.

As the screenwriter, Larry Malkus plays the only character who isn't blood-thirsty from the start. If anything, he's a bit naive. An off-Broadway playwright making his motion picture debut, Malkus' character is new to the medium's dog-eat-dog mentality. The change he undergoes, however, makes him the most interesting character on stage. Malkus handles this transformation fairly well, showing us how readily Dr. Jekyll, the playwright, turns into Mr. Hyde, the screenwriter, after tasting the seductive serum of fame.

Young Brenda and the movie's producer are already addicts. Stacey L. Werling's Brenda actually chants a mantra intended to make her famous, and Werling's irritating delivery of this mantra is her funniest bit. But when it comes to sheer unadulterated ambition, Werling doesn't seem sufficiently hungry. Maybe that's because there's still light in her eyes; Brenda's would probably look vacant at best.

The character of the producer is intended to not only be desperate but disgusting. He suffers from a physical ailment that is literally a pain in the butt, and he describes it in graphic detail. And yet, Shanley's darkly comic language is more vicious than Tim King's portrayal. The producer is a man who says "material" when he means "maternal." But there's something gentle about King. Unlike his character, he seems to have a heart.

Andrew Gilley's bright red and Mylar-curtained set doesn't quite work, either. It's cheerful and wide open when it should be tawdry and confining. Fell's Point Corner's new, larger stage has much to recommend it, but based on the first two productions on that stage, the theater's designers have yet to discover how ** to use this increased space to best advantage.

The production's chief problem, however, is that it's "Four Dogs and a Bone" without enough bite. It's funny -- but not savage. "The theater -- that's like the outback of entertainment," the producer says at one point. A great line, but no one on stage really seems to believe it.

'Four Dogs and a Bone'

Where: Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through Dec. 8

Tickets: $10-$11

Call: (410) 276-7837

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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