“There are sins from which we will never be absolved,” 34-year-old writer Michael tells the audience at the outset of the solemn tragedy “Red Dog Howls” at the New York Theatre Workshop.
He and we eventually learn details of the atrocity that scarred his family, thanks to a crash course in the Armenian genocide and a remarkable performance by Kathleen Chalfant.
Playwright Alexander Dinelaris is a nimble talent whose “Still Life,” about a brilliant, blocked photographer, was presented off-Broadway in 2009.
“Red Dog Howls” is heavier, its plot propelled by the Ottoman slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923. (Dinelaris was raised in part by an Armenian grandmother secretive about her past.)
Michael (Alfredo Narciso), with a manicured beard and pregnant wife (Florencia Lozano), tells the audience that after his father died he found a box filled with letters and a note instructing him not to read them. The return addresses lead him to Rose (Chalfant), an earthy, cryptic 91-year-old with uncanny physical strength.
Over repeated visits, Michael and Rose play cards and he eats her soup and sweet Armenian bread. She aims to toughen him up and release him from the sorrow he inherited from his father. As he probes for more family history, she doles out clues.
“Hell is a place where you live the most terrible day of your life, over and over again, for eternity,” she says.
“Do you believe that?” he asks.
“Yes, very much.”
Chalfant is commanding, especially in a riveting monologue in which she finally reveals the truth he’s seeking. Designer Marsha Ginsberg nicely evokes Rose’s old-world Upper Manhattan apartment.
The play’s themes include the risk of obsessing over the past while neglecting the present and how pain is passed down through generations. Its jolting solution for excising demons is best not tried at home.
While the wind-up to the denouement is slow-going under Ken Rus Schmoll’s otherwise sensitive staging, “Red Dog Howls” lends human scale to a dark period too often minimized as a run- up to the 20th century’s later horrors.
Through Oct. 14 at 79 E. 4th St. Information: +1-212-460- 8996, http://www.nytw.org. Rating: ***
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(Philip Boroff is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at email@example.com.