Unhappy in their own way 'Bad Dog' takes a bite out of the trials and traumas of a nominally Jewish family

Molly (Holly Twyford), left, attempts to keep the peace with her sister Linda (Emily Townley) in Olney Theatre Center's production of Bad Dog. Photo by Nicholas Griner

Molly (Holly Twyford), left, attempts to keep the peace with her sister Linda (Emily Townley) in Olney Theatre Center’s production of Bad Dog.
Photo by Nicholas Griner

Review

It’s hard to miss the giant hole in Molly Drexler’s living room. It’s the size of a Prius, which is what she drove into her own house while on a bender a couple of nights earlier. That ugly hole is the physical manifestation of the fissures that have wrecked Drexler’s life in the rolling world premiere of Jennifer Hoppe-House’s rapier sharp Bad Dog. The new work, at Olney Theatre Center through Oct. 25, is an installment in the area-wide Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Molly Drexler and her wife, Abby Cory, live in a bright, open California split in Sherman Oaks (kudos to designer Tony Cisek). In response to the car crash and Molly’s nose-dive off the wagon, her family — two sisters, her mom, and her dad and his second wife — converge. Some are ready to stage an intervention, some are ready to settle decades-old animosities. It’s what families do best in the worst of times.

Molly has plenty to come to terms with from her past. There’s the immediate trauma following the brutal death of her beloved dog, and plenty of hints of a dysfunctional upbringing: There’s the father who abandoned his family for a floozy girlfriend and the mother who helped strangers as a social worker but then came home to hit her own children. Molly and her two sisters, now middle-aged, have each struggled — financially, with health, in relationships, or, in Molly’s case, with addiction.

While alcohol, primarily wine, is an integral aspect of every Jewish religious holiday and weekly Shabbat observance, there’s a long-held myth — or maybe it’s wishful thinking — that Jews aren’t drunkards (save for Purim, when drinking is not only condoned, but encouraged). Playwright Hoppe-House subverts this commonly held, but inaccurate belief. Jews can be alcoholics and addicts — and it can wreck lives and tear families apart.

The Drexlers are modern, West Coast Jews. There’s nothing markedly Jewish in Molly and Abby’s home — no menorah on display, few books and no East Coast neuroticism from the Woody Allen/Jerry Seinfeld school of Jewishness. But at one point to lighten an argument, they sing “Dayenu,” the Passover song, and there are other snatches of conversation that signal these are secular Jews. Yet, the Drexlers could be every family, unhappy in its own way.

The repartee between the sisters is biting, the sarcasm heavy, which moves along the early expositional scenes with acidic wit. First up are sisters Linda and Becky who spar about who has it worse — whose life glitch is more difficult — Becky’s ongoing financial struggles, or Linda’s bout with breast cancer. Battered and bandaged, Molly enters and the battle heightens. Who has it harder: the laid off screenwriter Molly, or Linda, the journalist in a shrinking field? Mom Lois’ arrival clarifies the challenges the sisters faced growing up. Still bitter 30 years after her husband’s infidelity, she lacks the capacity to express empathy for her daughters’ problems.

The second act opens after a few days of family festering. Molly remains in denial about her drinking problem; the sisters are ready to flee or intervene, intermittently. Wife Abby is at her wits end. Into the discord saunters father Walt and his second wife, Sandra. The satisfying sarcasm of the first act defers to more serious and somber revelations in the second. But not before the sparks fly.

Hoppe-House, a television writer (Nurse Jackie, Damages and the Netflix hit Grace and Frankie), exhibits an assured pen for this, her first full-length play. She has provided a complement of interesting characters and builds a dynamic and dramatic climax while also dropping in a few surprising shockers.

Her dialogue is peppered with fresh and clever rejoinders, eliciting plenty of audience laughter. Best of all though is the ensemble Olney Theatre and director Jeremy Cohen have gathered.

Bad Dog features a sextet of the region’s best locally based actresses. Leading the cast as the battered, bruised alcoholic Molly is Holly Twyford, whose vulnerability and intransigence in face of the disease become palpable. Amy McWilliams and Emily Townley play sisters Linda and Becky, respectively, with equal amounts of sugar and vinegar. Naomi Jacobson takes on flawed mother Lois, while Gladys Rodriguez is her sparring partner as the second wife, Sondra. Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan is the peacemaker as Molly’s wife Abby. To see them all together on stage at once is a rarity and a gift during this season of women’s voices.

While Bad Dog is put together expertly and lovingly, it’s no easy ride. Leaving the theater last weekend, one audience member proclaimed, “I need a drink.” As difficult as it is to experience the trials and traumas the Drexlers go through, including a heartbreaking reveal, this is a must-see this season.

Bad Dog, through Oct. 25, Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Tickets: 301-924.3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.

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