Transient Theatre

at the Upstage Theater

Billed as a “dark comedy,” Sean Clark’s fine Dog Explosion will disappoint both those looking for a quick, easy laugh and those looking for the pointed social criticism of a genuine black comedy. Though Clark currently works in Los Angeles cranking out scripts for such series as Coach and Northern Exposure, Dog Explosion would never be taken for a sitcom episode tossed onto the stage. Any jokes in this play–and most of the big laughs are clustered near the top of the show–are definitely subservient to character development.

Nor would this gentle, understated comedy ever be confused with the black comedies that filled both stage and screen in the 60s and early 70s–Little Murders, The Ruling Class, I Love You Alice B. Toklas, and Harold and Maude–comedies that earned our nervous laughter by scraping off society’s polite veneer and exposing the dark side of the status quo. In Peter Barnes’s The Ruling Class, for example, the elite consider a man mad when he thinks he’s Jesus but sane when he’s convinced that he’s Jack the Ripper. Such strong social protest is not really part of Clark’s agenda.

As in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, Clark’s characters do funny things moment by moment: Matt blows up his dog, eats mini-donuts with beer, backs his truck into the pond. The story that frames these comic passages, however, is so consistently sad, so filled with barely repressed desperation, that only a monster would chuckle his way through the play.

Set in 1984 in Henry County, Missouri (the county seat has a population of 8,836), Dog Explosion portrays three dysfunctional siblings–Matt, Naomi, and Charlotte–all in their early 20s, all rotting away in rural America. They have meaningless jobs: Charlotte works as a waitress, Naomi manages a convenience store, and Matt does farm work and runs the projector at the local movie theater. But they cope with their lives in very different ways: Naomi drinks, Charlotte’s found Jesus, and Matt blames himself and makes weird, stupid mistakes to justify his self-loathing.

What triggers Clark’s drama is the accidental death, five to ten minutes before the play begins, of their aged senile mother. The accident occurs when Matt good-heartedly attempts to put his cancer-ridden dog out of his misery by blowing him up, a plan that goes awry when Matt forgets to tie T-Bone to a tree. The mother’s death is the blackest part of Clark’s comedy–her heart stops when T-Bone runs into the house and explodes (hence the play’s title). The characters’ obsession with what to do with her body puts the play squarely in the tradition of such black comedies as I Love You Alice B. Toklas and The Trouble With Harry, which build their stories around corpses that cannot be buried or will not stay put.

Once these initial dark passages are over, however, Clark steers his play away from troubling questions of mortality into shallower, more often navigated waters. Even though the most often asked question in Dog Explosion is “What should we do with Mama’s body?” the real question is “What do we do with our lives now that Mama’s dead?” And Clark answers that question the way any naturalistic playwright would, by slowly peeling away the layers, slowly revealing each character’s flaws, foibles, and strengths, until by the end of the play we have a pretty good idea of who these people are and where they’re going.

Though the play literally begins with a bang, not much happens after that, nor are the characters’ aspirations particularly exalted. Naomi, the most worldly of the three, aspires only to move to Kansas City or New Orleans–maybe. It’s a testament to Tim Carroll’s direction and to the cast’s powers that the play doesn’t seem slow or its story trivial. Tom Daniel plays the schlemiel Matt with just the right mixture of fool and wounded man/child. And Jane deLaubenfels’s take on bitter, aimless, alcoholic Naomi is remarkably free of cliches. It’s Julie Ganey’s portrayal of born-again Charlotte, however, that really sets off one of the major strengths of Clark’s play.

As far back as Moliere’s Tartuffe, zealous Christians have been treated in the theater as cranks, crooks, or hypocrites, as quick to judge others as they are to justify their own selfish acts with a line from the Bible. Clark, however, does not ridicule Charlotte for her faith. She is, in fact, a surprisingly sympathetic character–even I, a confirmed agnostic, liked her–and the healthiest member of this sick family. She even tries, with limited success, to prevent Matt and Naomi’s self-destructive behavior. Of course it helps that Ganey manages lines like “I pray for all of us all of the time” without melodrama and repeats Charlotte’s mild jokes–“Well, Matt, I am holier than both of thou”–without sounding the least bit snide, ironic, or self-important.

Mind you, Clark is too clever to allow Charlotte’s easy answers to life’s thorniest questions to dominate his play. Still, watching Dog Explosion I was reminded of playwright Christopher Fry’s definition of comedy as “an escape, not from truth but from despair: a narrow escape into faith.”