Yes, this is a play about dogs—dogs portrayed by human actors. And they’re not wearing cutesy animal outfits. They are in fact talented actors who have learned the ways of dogs. For that, we can also thank movement director Jaq Seifert, who worked with the humans who play the dogs. Dex & Abby, written by Allan Baker and directed by Daniel Washelesky, is a sweet and poignant human story about a special kind of blended family. It’s on stage now at the Pride Arts Center.
Two young men fall in love, decide to live together and then debate how much “together” really means for them. When two households come together, so do their dogs—and it’s not always amicable. Abby, a 5-year-old runt Rhodesian ridgeback (Chesa Green) and Dex, a 13-year-old “genetic gumbo,” part English pointer, boxer, lab and pit bull (Daniel Vaughn Manasia) show us it’s not easy to make a house into a twin doghome.
The dogs have their beds in the living room. They bicker and taunt each other when they’re alone—even though their dads* think they’re both happy to have a playmate. Dex and Abby refer to their dads as Yours and Mine. Abby understands her dad Sean (Josh Pablo Szabo) and Dex understands Corey (Jesse Montoya) and they mistranslate for the other. Dex and Corey have been together since Corey was a teenager and Dex was a pup.
* I’m using “dad” to define the relationship between dog and man because a friend who is a dog lover and dog expert says she is her dog’s mom.
Abby loves squirrels. And her stuffed animals. It’s war when Dex chews up her favorite pink stuffed rabbit. The dads’ friend Katy (Jasmine Manuel) visits occasionally and takes the dogs out when their dads are gone. Katy has known Abby for a long time and has a bit of trouble getting used to Dex, who is a big sloppy dog who eats like a horse, according to Abby; she calls him old man. Dex calls Abby a runt bitch.
These animosities, of course, are softened with time and by the end of act one, the two dogs are guardedly friendly and Dex commits to protecting Abby, who is terrified of thunderstorms. As act two starts (a year later), they’re fast friends. You can tell right away because their beds are now next to each other rather than across the room.
Mid-play, there are two moving scenes as Abby and Sean, and later, Corey and Dex, have middle-of-the-night talks about loneliness. And it’s clear that, as much as they love their dogs, loneliness is only alleviated when you have a loving human at your side.
When Corey broaches the subject of marriage, Sean looks uneasy and says, “I’m not totally sure what I think about gay marriage. Isn’t that sorta like sleeping with the enemy? Adopting their values?” In a later discussion, Sean says, “… isn’t that just having another kind of closet? Being like the rest? Hiding in plain sight among the straights?” And Corey argues that isn’t fair. “I’d say two guys getting married is about as far out of the closet as you can get….. And we don’t have to be like our parents.”
The story ends on a note of sorrow and joy. A play I feared would be silly turns out to be a warm and poignant story of loneliness, love and humanity. Director Washelesky’s program note comments, “What I love about Dex & Abby is that it honors the individual complexity and emotional depth that dogs have. While finding humor in their foibles, this play also does justice to their desires, fears and love.”
Washelesky’s direction draws out the emotional intensity, desires, fears and love of the whole cast, human and canine. Eric Luchen’s set design features minor changes to mark the passage of time. The bedroom scene is created by dropping a Murphy bed out of the rear wall. Lighting is by Sam Stephen and sound by Will Quam. Costumes are by Colin Bradley Meyer.
Dex & Abby continues on the Broadway stage at Pride Films and Plays, 4139 N. Broadway, through March 29. Tickets are $30-$40 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Running time is 2 hours plus one intermission.