Old Dog, New Tricks
The Dog Beneath the Skin By W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood Directed by Bill Rauch At the Loeb Drama Center, July 6-10
THE FIRST OF FOUR Harvard Summer Theater productions is a lost dog. Well, perhaps not lost--the Loeb's Experimental Theater is a comfortable home for The Dog Beneath the Skin--but the play is certainly without an owner.
Claiming ownership on one side are play wrights W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. They have left the other claimant, director Bill Rauch, with a verse play which popularizes Marxism in a social and political critique of pre-World War Two bourgeois Europe.
The play, conceived of and written largely by Auden, is a series of seemingly peripheral scenes and songs in the modern disjunctive genre, tenuously held together by the quest of Alan Norman (played by Mark Driscoll) and his dog for the missing Sir Francis Crewe (Paul Warner). The general of Pressan Ambo, the rural English town where the quest begins, explains the dog's disloyalty to all as if he were speaking of the play itself: "It's his mongrel blood, of course No loyalty, no proper feeling."
It is just this proper feeling which director Rauch tries to evoke: the emotions and the characters of the people involved. But Rauch is given so little personal material of any depth or complexity in the text, that stellar acting is the only solution. With impressive consistency, the humorous touches thrown into this updated version keep the 1935 play entertaining. Brian McCue's series of comic scenes seem to emerge directly from Auden's own witty and slightly bizarre sense of humor. And Max Cantor shines as the ridiculous subjectivist poet who tells Alan Norman that all objects exist only in the poet's mind: "If I shut my eyes they all disappear." The poet's theory is broken when the dog bites his hand, a simple, timely metaphor for the coming world war.
Luckily, Rausch edits most of the didactic verse--such as Auden's version of T.S. Eliot's conclusion to The Wasteland (Auden: "Repent... Unite ... Act"), or his awkwardly Marxist closing line: "To each his need, from each his power." Rauch leaves in those speeches pointing to the concerns more relevant to his summer audience: "Take sex, for instance... Sometimes it's funny and sometimes it's said, but it's always hanging about like a smell of drains."
This perhaps is best taken and clung to as the focal point of the play: the particularly modern form of personal inauthenticity, of plastic and degrading relationships, of--yes, once again--alienation. Rauch obliterates most of the political alienation which Auden ties to the malaise of the individual. The director instand emphasizes the distorted manner in which the Victorian sexual logacy has been incorporated into our own age.
The most poignant scene of the sexual abnormalcy is not in the Red Light District, where degenerates sing: "Whatever you dream of alone in bed. Come to us and we will make it real instead." Nor is it the scene in the Nineveh Hotel (remember Jonah's destination), where the dancing girls offer. "We lift our legs for your masculine inspection. You can admire us without correction..." The best scene does not take place until Alan Norman loses the innocent manner with which he has made his quest and makes love to the beautiful Miss Vipond, played by a shopwindow dummy. Driscoll's fall from purity--which he has carried through very well throughout the play--resembles the social and personal malaise seen earlier in Paradise Park and the Red Light District.
BUT Sir Francis Crewe makes an entrance, and we see the beginnings of the first real relationship for the hand-holding Alan Norman. The emotions Rauch creates with this interaction are probably not opposed to those intended by Auden and Isherwood. Unfortunately, however, the lack of personal understanding we have for Alan Norman's fall or for his relationship with Crewe stems not from the acting or the directing, but from the play itself.
Another weakness is that without the political context of the original play, the two journalists--who are two of the few main characters--have little reason to be in the drama at all. The cynical story-grubbing journalists (Nina Bernstein and Gregg Lachow) attempt to become more than stick-figure guides to the seamy side of Europe, but are uncomfortable on stage and rarely manage to tease a real character from the verse text.
Why is the talent-laden Summer Theater putting on a play which is so difficult to transform into something other than a politically dated satire (an attempt which succeeds surprisingly well despite all obstacles)? Perhaps the ensemble nature of the play will help the 17 actors form a group capable of putting on four two-week shows in rapid and tiring succession. In any case, the play compares favorably with most Main stage shows and is an amusing, if still a slightly disoriented mongrel.