Review: Book-It’s “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is doggedly good…up to a point

Published by on April 22nd, 2012
Review: “The Art of Racing in the Rain” based on the novel by Garth Stein and adapted by Myra Platt. Directed by Carol Roscoe. Produced by Book-It Repertory Theatre. With Eric Riedmann, Peter Jacobs, Eleanor Moseley, Sylvie Davidson, Mike Dooly, Mae Corley and David S. Hogan as Enzo. Now through May 13, 2012 at the Center House Theatre/Seattle Center.

As a puppy, Enzo (David S. Hogan)gets hooked on racing videos when Denny (Eric Riedmann) plays him a tape; photo by Alan Alabastro.

I went into Book-It Rep’s newest play, its adaptation of Seattle author’s best-selling novel, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” only being aware that it involved a dog as a main character and not much else. (I hadn’t read the original novel or done much research; I like not knowing too much about brand new plays. ) This gave me some trepidation; as I’ve informed you in previous reviews, I’m not a huge fan of actors portraying animals on the stage. Of late, there seems to be an epidemic of animals on local stages, particularly over at Washington Ensemble Theatre last year where every time you turned around, someone was turning into a bird, or a horse, or a hump backed ocelot. Even Seattle Rep got in on the act last year with “Sylvia” the cuter than thou play with an actress portraying a pooch and disrupting a marriage. The “People as Animals” bit seems a bit contrived and certainly overdone.

So, one strike against “The Art of Racing in the Rain” which features a dog as the narrator and protagonist. And since Book-It doesn’t have the budget, or probably the desire, to build an animatronic pooch, we’re left with local actor David S. Hogan as the rascally rogue, “Enzo”, complete with tail waggings, pantings, and boot scoots across the stage floor…we’re spared any crotch cleaning, but Book-It does like to keep things at a family friendly-ish level.

To make matters worse, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is also about: NASCAR/Formula 1/Grand Prix. Car racing. You know; that hillbilly “sport” so beloved by our Fox News watching, Red State dwelling friends and neighbors. Grimy tracks on hot, humid days; gallons of beer and fat people in polyester and ball caps watching cars drive round and round a track for HOURS at a time, secretly praying that someone crashes in a huge fiery ball of death, destruction and charred race car driver. Yes, that so called “sport”. (Note: I’m from the Midwest and worked at a motel a mile from a NASCAR track…my very biased opinion is based on the hell of working the week of a NASCAR major event…)

I keed, I keed…somewhat. Billions of folks love NASCAR/Formula 1/Grand Prix and car racing in general and that’s fine…as long as I don’t have to watch it. Or, read or attend a play about it. So, as the house lights went down, and the performance of “The Art of Racing…” started, my heart sank a bit and I prepared for a long night of watching a show that concerned talking dogs and race cars. Ugh.

And, then: I fell in love.

“The Art of Racing in the Race” is about a dog and it does concern car racing, as a backdrop, but at heart, it’s a love story between that dog and the man he shares his life with, Denny, an aspiring race car driver. Racing (and specifically, “racing in the rain”) is obviously an important metaphor and theme in the play, but it really boils down to the central relationship between a man and his “best friend” and the power and love generated by their bond. The beauty of that relationship really drives this material and it’s the characters themselves, Denny and Enzo and the actors who portray them, that lift this play into a lovely piece of theater. Eric Riedmann as Denny and David S. Hogan as Enzo both give beautifully rendered performances as the oddest love couple recently seen on a Seattle stage, and embodying their roles with depth and meaning, not to mention great charm and wit. I can recommend seeing this play, solely on the strength of their performances. And, if you don’t fall in love with David S. Hogan’s Enzo, there might be something wrong with you; it’s so beautifully realized without being cutesy or phony, that you might want to run out and buy your own Enzo. It’s one of the top performances so far of 2012.

Behind the scenes, there’s much to admire about “The Art of Racing…” as well. Not having read the original book, I can’t attest that Myra Platt did a faithful job of adaptation, but the pacing and both the dramatic and comedic moments created on stage, all come from the strength of the text she adapted. Carol Roscoe’s direction keeps the show on track as it veers from very fast moving scenes to slower, more tender ones. The play is beautifully lighted by Richard Schaefer and both that lighting design and Rob Witmer’s excellent sound design convey the power, thrust and speed of “racing in the rain”. It’s a superbly produced, directed, adapted and designed show.

Now, for the less good news. It’s not perfect. I adored Act One of “The Art of Racing..” as we met Enzo, his sweet natured owner Denny; Denny’s girlfriend Eve who quickly becomes his wife; their subsequent daughter Zoe; and their large circle of friends that includes a gay couple. Eve and Denny’s relationship isn’t perfect as they cope with the demands of his car racing career, which is not only expensive to break into, but obviously requires that Denny travel all over the country. And, as the play heads into the second (of three acts), the plot focuses on Eve’s health issues and arising issues with Eve’s stuffy, Mercer Island dwelling parents who disapprove of their daughter’s marriage to Denny. The story becomes increasingly melodramatic and there is a bit less focus on the relationship between Denny and Enzo and by the end of Act Two, my love affair with “The Art of Racing…” had cooled considerably. In fact, I was angry about it.

I won’t reveal too many specifics for that source of my anger, because it would spoil the plot of the play, but it boils down to the rather cardboard characterization of the parents, who are stereotypical “evil, rich bastards” straight out of of soap opera. The soapy theatrics of the end of Act Two, and the beginning of Act Three hurt the essential story line and the power of the relationship between Denny and Enzo. I’ve since heard, from someone who HAS read the novel, that the book contains numerous racing scenes involving interior monologues which would be obviously tough to stage, thus the melodramatic plot was emphasized in place of that material. I don’t know what the solution would be, to an adaptor of the material, but for me, personally, the irritating soapy qualities did harm the story and the overall experience of seeing this play. I also know, from speaking with other people at intermission and after the play, that I wasn’t alone in that opinion. It marred the experience.

So, I don’t really give grades, ala “Entertainment Weekly” but that plot element was able to knock this production from a solid “A” down to a “B-” . I very much admired many of the aforementioned elements in this production, including the solid work of the other actors including Sylvie Davidson as Eve and the adorable young actress  Mae Corley as the daughter Zoe and even the work of Seattle veteran actors Peter Jacobs and Eleanor Moseley as the Evil Parents (and other characters as well). I was annoyed by the melodrama, but by the end of the play much of my ire had cooled as the play refocused on the relationship between Enzo and Denny. The final, exquisitely performed and directed moments between the two characters will break your heart but leave you cheering the excellent work of the two actors playing those roles, David S. Hogan and Eric Riedmann.

And, dog lovers need to bring their handkerchiefs.

 

 


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