Watching Theatre Decatur's holiday show The Third Howl is like seeing someone force a Christmas sweater onto a pooch. It's sort of cute, but hardly looks comfortable or natural on the dog. The pet-themed world premiere by Atlanta playwright Patrick Cuccaro, with music by Kevin Sanders, gamely attempts to offer a new kind of holiday play, but the end results are less than fetching.
The Third Howl takes place in Eddie's Alley in Decatur, home to a cynical cat -- not a hipster, a real cat -- named Sally (Jennifer Hendrickson), who endures monthly visits from three rambunctious canines: puppyish Hoover (Zach Solomon), erudite Lamont (Jacob Wood) and aging Louie (Mark Feldman). At first, the animal ensemble simply sings about familiar types of beastly behavior; Sally croons a bluesy tune about cat-naps on hot days, while the older dogs teach Hoover the catchy patter song "Street Bum" about learning to beg from humans.
Inspiration strikes Hoover to create a "Beggar's Feast," an all-animal December holiday encompassing DeKalb County, and despite Sally's discouraging words, the dogs think up ways to organize pets to collectively share their food. Part of the strange thing about The Third Howl is that the characters aren't exactly straight-up talking animals like, say, Lady and the Tramp. They have too many vaguely human traits, like acknowledging holidays and giving presents, so that The Third Howl doesn't really make dramatic sense, as if the holiday theme was imposed on the material.
A soulful singer with body language akin to Julie Newmar's Catwoman, Hendrickson plays a feline with the right kind of slinky hauteur. But though Solomon proves boyishly likable and Wood has an amusing Elvis impression, Feldman pushes his cutesiness far past tolerable levels. Down, boy!
It certainly takes some musical creativity to compose an entire song ("Poor Boscoe") about an off-stage dog with a butt-scooting problem. Nevertheless, The Third Howl feels like a modestly scaled children's play written over the heads of a youthful audience.
The Third Howl lasts only a couple of hours, but in dog years, that's like being in the theater for half a day.
The Third Howl. Through Dec. 15. Theatre Decatur, 430 W. Trinity Place, Decatur. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $20-$24. 404-373-5311. www.theatredecatur.com.