Nearly every curtain speech I hear features the line, "Word of mouth is our best advertising," and last week I saw living proof of that. I received a mass e-mail from Essential Theatre Artistic Director Peter Hardy recommending Crazy for the Dog, staged by a new company called Rabid Artists. Six words jumped out at me: "Stacy Melich. Robin Bloodworth. 75 minutes." Sold!
Melich and Bloodworth consistently prove to be two of Atlanta's most compelling actors, and even if Rabid Artists' inaugural production might turn out to be, well, a dog, less than an hour and a half seemed like a worthwhile gamble. In fact, Crazy for the Dog provides nearly the ideal introduction to a scrappy new theater company. Producing director Emily Pender precisely calibrates the sly humor and emotional violence of Christopher Boal's intriguing play.
Crazy for the Dog starts at a brisk pace and never lets up (the company could just as easily be called "Rapid" Artists). Corporate ladder-climber Paul (Bloodworth) arrives at the home of his "eccentric" sister Jenny (Melich) in response to her emergency phone call. Paul's main concern is for his beloved dog Pete, whom Jenny walks every day. Jenny gradually reveals a plan to use Pete as a bargaining chip to pressure Paul into revealing some family secrets.
Initially we side with Paul, who seems normal and innocent compared with Jenny's reckless behavior. As Jenny puts the screws to her brother, in full view of his wife (Kelly Marckioli), Paul turns out to be less sympathetic and mentally composed than he initially seemed. Although Crazy for the Dog starts out as a dysfunctional family comedy in the vein of Christopher Durang, its increasingly raw emotions turn into a theatrical blood sport nearly on par with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Pender's cast resists the urge to turn the roles into comedic caricatures of uptight yuppies or zany free spirits. In the wrong hands, the Jenny character could be insufferably "kooky," but Melich admirably emphasizes deeper feelings and motivations rather than superficial bits of silliness. Bloodworth so effectively raises Paul's defenses that it becomes nearly unbearable to see them dismantled. Marckioli and Alex Van (as Jenny's hostile ex-boyfriend) find similar payoff by playing their roles seriously and letting the laughs come naturally.
Seemingly out of the blue, Crazy for the Dog serves as a great example of the kind of accessible fringe theater that taps into the same energy, integrity and subversive attitude as independent film and alternative rock (in their respective glory days). Maybe a little of the action feels repetitive, and a couple of speeches go over the top, but Crazy for the Dog's focused intensity leaves you eager to see Rabid Artists' next venture. This dog hunts.
Crazy for the Dog. Through Feb. 9. $10. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m. Rabid Artists, PushPush Theater, 121 New St. 678-810-0803. www.rabidartists.com.