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Hair of the Dog/Children of Cain

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HAIR OF THE DOG

at the Avenue Theatre

CHILDREN OF CAIN

at the Playwrights' Center

At its heart Thomas Arthur Repp's Hair of the Dog, in its midwest premiere at the Avenue Theatre, is a simple, endearing melodrama of cockeyed redemption. Bones is a former music teacher who lost his job after slamming a kid's hands in a piano when he was on a drunk. Now in his late 40s, he heads a rum-running gang during Prohibition from a ramshackle house across the river from the Canadian border: he and his motley crew of smugglers pose as dog breeders to smuggle booze in dog-food cans into the States. But his cover is threatened when the two dogs he keeps for breeding refuse to mate. In an interesting twist, the dogs are played by humans, and though we can understand them, they only bewilder and aggravate Bones. The female, Uno, is in heat and all too willing, but Dono, the male, is interested only in knocking over the lawn ornaments of a neighbor, Choo Choo, a pretty, kooky stripper who's obviously crazy about Bones. Unfortunately Bones, like his dog, has his mind on other things.

The story has focus and charm. Handled with skill, the characters might be engrossing. And the dramatic questions are in place: What so preoccupies Bones? Will Choo Choo win his heart and save them both? What's not to like in such a story? Indeed, if the author had zeroed in on this basic yarn he might have developed a satisfying play. But sadly Repp throws in so many plot lines and characters that all action and conflict get lost in the endless exposition.

As new characters are introduced--each with a more outlandish name than the last--the underlying story becomes more diluted. We meet Putty Nose, the trusty rum runner with a heart of gold who keeps a bitter secret that could destroy Bones; Crazy Ike, the mildly retarded young man with an enigmatic obsession that could also destroy Bones; Sweet-Potato Red, a thoroughly tattooed good ol' boy who hides the shame of his sobriety from his cohorts; the two-faced Stellis the Crow, who betrays the gang; and his half-brother Leviticus, a deranged drunk who thinks himself a holy prophet. Each new character delivers another expository speech, and all the talk of the past makes it more and more difficult to get the action going again. When Choo Choo gives Bones a huge pickax as a symbol of her affection, naturally she launches into a tale about her dead husband, who was lost to the mines. The clumsy prop only highlights the additional needless background.

By the time Stellis the Crow begins to move the action forward with a nasty double cross, it's too late. Repp has dug himself so deep, has piled on so many characters and subplots, that he must add yet another quirky character, the ghost of Bones's father, to bring the story to its weak resolution.

The likable cast, solidly orchestrated by director Curtis Osmun, help the play tremendously, but they've been given the impossible task of all the king's men: try as they might, they cannot put this humpty-dumpty script together again.

Chicago playwright Jamie Pachino's new play, Children of Cain, is being billed as a black comedy. That leaves it open whether the play is a not-very-satirical parody interpreted with arid subtlety or unconscious plagiarism of Sam Shepard and his ilk.

The story concerns three grown siblings--Lettie, Macon, and Julius--who share a broken-down east Texas home built on the ground where their parents died. Unfortunately, their parents were brother and sister, and the three believe they're cursed to relive the sins of their forebears. Into this situation, on a hot and stormy night, comes Gabriel, a handsome door-to-door Bible salesman. Lettie tries to seduce him, hoping to avoid the sinful pull of her younger brother, Julius. Not to be outdone, Macon brings home a sexy floozy named Devlin; by the oddest coincidence, she is not only Gabriel's sister but pregnant with Julius's child. (The characters repeatedly excuse such coincidence by saying that "truth is stranger than fiction"). Soon they all get down to the business of fulfilling their destinies--or at least their concepts of what their destinies should be.

Children of Cain might be more enjoyable if it weren't a car-crash version of several Shepard plays. The motifs of a family curse (Curse of the Starving Class), an impassioned love affair between brother and sister (Fool for Love), and family shame (Buried Child) are too obviously derivative, especially combined with the crumbling heartland setting. If the play is meant to spoof this vein of American drama, however, it fails to draw blood: it simply isn't very funny. Pachino's dialogue is lively and believable, and Edward Sobel's direction is crisp, but the ambiguous nature of the beast makes for a bland evening.

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