As the company did to conclude their 2010-2011 season, with an adaptation of Jim Lynch’s Border Songs, Book-it Repertory Theatre has again set out to render for the stage a novel by a Northwest author, this time Garth Stein, whose New York Times best-seller and book club hit, The Art of Racing in the Rain, is an ode to man’s best friend. Told in Book-It’s signature narrative style, which empowers characters to comment on their own actions and describe their feelings in direct address (plucking expository prose from the source material, and putting it in characters’ mouths), the production has been winning over dog-lovers and sentimentalists en masse.
Stein’s novel is narrated by Enzo (David S. Hogan), a kind-hearted mutt abundant with virtuous energies and endearingly naive understandings, who exhibits a tireless attention to the successes and struggles of his master, aspiring race-car drive Denny Swift (Eric Riedmann). Situations aren’t often affected directly by Enzo, he with his limiting manner of agency (being a dog), so he tends more to observe and comment on Denny’s challenges than he does engender changes of his own. To hear our narrator speak, however, the distinction between he and his master would be just shy of trivial. They are a partnership in which each fawns and worries over the other mutually, so the line between the two almost begins to blur.
We witness the companionship between Denny and Enzo from its inception, when a young Denny purchases the then-puppy from a surly farmer (Peter Jacobs, who successfully manages a number of roles throughout the production). Periodically leaping about in time, Racing tracks the duo through the entirety of their love, and even beyond its inevitable, heartstring-tugging ‘conclusion.’ Over this time they ascend to, and then are knocked from, an optimistic bliss, and together endure slings of death, betrayal, legal embattlement, and failure. They go on to enjoy an audaciously agreeable validation of their fortitude and resolve. It’s a classic arc, at times tediously so, that vacillates between lightly humorous and melodramatic tones.
Amid the third of the play’s three acts, Enzo grows into something resembling an assertive voice, single-handedly affecting a serious change in Denny’s life. While the possibility of a sane person taking legal advice from his dog seems slim, the point is endeavored to be made that Enzo, in taking the reigns of this particular situation, is really articulating to Denny something he already knows. Denny only needs to see the reassertion of Enzo’s partnership, “We’re still fighting this fight together,” to continue not to allow his integrity to waver in favor of an easier path. So while Denny and Enzo do undergo separate arcs, each facing different challenges and reaping different rewards, their arcs are practically identical in shape, and mostly span the same period of time.
The high point of the production is David S. Hogan’s portrayal of Enzo, which is well-served by the actor’s experience as a dog-trainer. His physicality, spending most of the nearly-three-hour play on all fours, is in itself impressive. His ability to intone ideas without speaking words is commendably communicative. In his complimentary role, Riedmann’s Denny is sympathetic and sincere, and the bond between the soul-mates is palpable. But one thing I intuit myself to be lacking, preventing me from becoming a more enthusiastic cheerleader of the show, is a soft-spot for dogs. If the dog-doting on which the show leans so considerably were to beguile me, I might’ve been more ripe to be moved by sentimental appeals. But I lack that reference point, and so was not hit particularly by what most of the audience seemed to be responding to.
Book-It’s adaptation of The Art of Racing in the Rain, characteristic of the much their work, is sleekly designed, thoughtfully acted, and appropriately reverential to its source material, generally opting for a family-friendly sensibility. Though Stein’s plot is not surprising or active enough to support a production of this length, audiences are responding to the show’s soft heart, enjoying a well-packaged, if at times saccharine, homage to man’s best friend.
May 09th through 13th, times varying // Center House Theatre, 305 Harrison St, Seattle Center // $25 – $44, tickets and schedule available here — tarry not, shows are almost sold out