Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association, photo by Heather Mall.
Any pet owner will tell you about the special relationship they have with the dogs, cats, or whatever under their care. And I don’t think I have ever met one (myself included) who doesn’t believe that the creatures they love feel the same way about them and who doesn’t wonder what they would say if they could talk. Well, in Allan Baker’s inventive Dex & Abby, they can. Mostly to each other, but occasionally to their humans too (in dreams), the two titular canines let us hear their thoughts and concerns in very human language, and it turns out that their fierce dedication to us doesn’t lie only in our imaginations.
Daniel Washelesky’s directorial eye allows both the world of the humans and that of the dogs to come alive here. Played out on a lovely, realistic set by Eric Luchen, the central story revolves around the blossoming relationship between two gay men (Jesse Montoya’s Corey and Josh Pablo Szabo’s Sean) as they move in together to begin to share their lives. It isn’t only their lives that are affected by this change, though: their loyal and loving dogs are thrust together as well. Corey’s older dog, Dex (Daniel Vaughn Manasia), at first is uncertain what to do with Sean’s Abby (Chesa Greene), and the feeling is mutual. They spend the first part of the play cautiously feeling each other out. Their individual affection for their people, however, is undeniable. A smell in the air or a tiny sound in the distance that signals Corey and Sean’s arrival home sends both of them into frenzied barking (and the much younger Abby into fits of leaping excitement). Baker shows the powerful bonds between human and dog in several ways, most notably those dream sequences but also in the fact that each dog is able to understand their own person but requires translation if the other one speaks.
Both Manasia and Greene give everything they’ve got to the physicalization of their roles. Dex, the aging mutt, has a fantasy that he is a big game hunter’s dog and is always poking around behind curtains or plants or, if they are out for “walkies,” the brush along the path as if sneaking up on some prey. Abby, meanwhile, is a very playful Rhodesian Ridgeback runt—one of those in the litter born without a ridge, whom breeders sometimes just take out and drown—who is very excited just to experience every moment of her life. Greene’s performance in this manic role is one of the singular joys of the year so far, and Washelesky is very fortunate to have found these two actors to embody his canine characters as well as Jaq Seifert to provide movement direction.
His “human” actors are no less wonderful. Montoya shows some deeply powerful emotions as Corey, who has some out of a less than satisfying long-term relationship with a man who didn’t really love him and whom he didn’t really love. He is very happy to have found Sean and, as we meet them, is already thinking in terms of marriage. Sean, though, an orphan with abandonment issues, doesn’t believe in commitment because it terrifies him. Szabo’s performance, often deflecting real emotions with clearly intentional walls, brings that fear to life. It’s only in his imagined conversations with Abby that he allows his shields to come down.
The third “human” character in the play is Jasmine Manuel’s Katy, half of a lesbian couple—her lover does not appear—and an old friend of both Sean and Abby. Katy desires to protect both of them (and herself as well) from anything that could be painful. She’s very cautious in getting to know both Corey and Dex (whose size she reasonably fears), but slowly comes to love them both. Her newfound affection for Dex proves highly confusing to the jealous Abby, who thinks of Katy as “hers,” but it is a sign that she believes this relationship will be good for Sean, long before he is willing to accept that himself.
While the humans sort out their feelings about relationships both gay and lesbian, the dogs are getting to know each other very well. In one scene, a terrified Abby (who is severely frightened of thunderstorms—which Will Quam’s sound design renders perfectly) is calmed down by the older and wiser Dex in a beautiful moment that shows their solidifying friendship as they move past initial distrust caused by Dex’s destruction of one of Abby’s cherished toys. Afterwards, we find them sleeping and playing together more often than not, and there is one nearly obligatory scene in which they bark at the squirrels out the window that completely distracted them from the conversation they had been having. These anthropomorphized animals at times feel even more real than the humans they love: quite an accomplishment for Baker and Washelesky and these actors.
Dex & Abby is a lovely play that will almost definitely make you both laugh and cry as it explores love and friendship in both humans and their dogs. (Bring tissues.) It’s most significant problem is excess: Baker would have been well advised to cut this 2:10 play into a 90-minute one-act, eliminating some of the superfluous and redundant middle scenes that make points we already understand. Still, its more playful touches, including the dogs’ movements and the repeated motif of signs showing time passing in both human months and dog years, are extremely satisfying and entertaining. If you love pets, you really owe it to yourself to see Dex & Abby; it probably won’t change how you see them, but it will certainly at least validate what you’ve been telling friends and family all along.
Dex & Abby is a Pride Films and Plays production now playing at Pride Arts Center’s Broadway Theatre, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL, until Mar 29. The show runs approximately 2:10; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.