'Four Dogs and a Bone': Actors rise above occasion

Saturday August 13, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- Four first-rate actors are giving four first-rate performances in the hands of one first-rate director in Berkshire Actors Theatre's inaugural production. If only the play, John Patrick Shanley's "Four Dogs and a Bone," were worth the effort.

Polish abounds at New Stage Performing Arts Center, where Berkshire Actors Theatre has set up temporary shop. The stage in this relatively flexible black box on the second floor of the Beacon Cinema building on North Street has been repositioned. Seating has been placed on risers. The printed program is sleek, easy to read. The production's design -- the centerpiece of which is a screen on which is printed, in various fonts, movie quotes -- "All About Eve's" "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be bumpy ride" and "Quo Vadis" ("whither goest thou?") most notable among them -- is at once simple and effective.

The lighting is tight, focused, no shadowy pockets. And the acting? Well, Berkshire Actors Theatre's founding artistic director, Clover Bell-Devaney, who also is in the cast, has given director Andrew Volkoff a fine ensemble to work with. Together, they approach Shanley's lacerating, profanity-laden temper tantrum about the evils of Hollywood with precision, discipline and a keen feel for the treacherous undercurrents that flow beneath the surface of this shark-infested pool.

And yet, as much gold as Volkoff and his actors make of "Four Dogs and a Bone," this really is dross; a petulant, childish rant by a playwright who charges wildly over territory that is wearingly familiar.


The noise in "Four Dogs and a Bone" is over the future of an $18 million "art" film that has to be shot for $12 million, which means that a radical change in the film's ending and significant cuts are going to have to be made by the screenwriter, Victor (Michael J. Foster in a nicely modulated performance), a hapless, hopeless creature who learns, by play's end, the rules of the game all too well, as he turns from deer-in-the-headlights victim to me-first survivor.

His producer, Bradley (a perfectly anguished Daniel Popowich), is caught in the buzz saw of financial pressures and the temperaments of his two leading ladies, Brenda (a deceptively vacuous but transparently manipulative Bell-Devaney), and her older co-star, Collette (Deann Halper in a blazing performance), whose futures in the business hinge on the way Victor changes the film's ending.


There's no subtlety in Shanley's writing, no finesse. He comes at all this with blunt force. This is an exercise in nastiness and cleverness for its own sake. By the time "Four Dogs and a Bone" was first produced 1993, Shanley had six films under his belt, one of them, "Joe Versus the Volcano," as both writer and director. It's clear in "Four Dogs and a Bone" that the territorial imperatives of those who toil in the Hollywood system -- even when they are as far removed from Hollywood, as these characters are, in New York -- was proving more than Shanley could stomach.

While Shanley does get off a few sharply observed one-liners every now and then, he, too, proves burdensome, at the very least. These actors don't however. From all other aspects, Berkshire Actors Theatre is off to a grand start.


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