Colonial Players’ Dog Logic

In some plays you understand a character by

dialogue, and in better plays through actions. But with the best, you know which way the wind blows from the moment a character walks on stage. So it is with Ben Carr and Jim Reiter, the pillars of Colonial Players’ Dog Logic, a dark comedy by Tom Strelich, playing through June 26.

As the brilliant but brain-damaged manic with the heart of a dog, Carr has the audience eating out of his hand within the first minute of his opening monologue. He has a lot of those, monologues addressed to anyone who happens to be listening, where he rants and philosophizes about history and human nature, there on the grounds of his parched pet cemetery amid the detritus of bald tires and garden statues and dozens of decrepit televisions and mounds of bric-a-brac.

There’s a copy of Rodin’s Thinker crowning it all, and that would be protagonist Hertel Daggett, himself. You’ve seen street people like this, but he’s different: so cute and funny, so vulnerable yet competent, so confused but crazy like a fox, honest, escapist, sweet and scary. His mind is a junkyard of symbology and trivia about dinosaurs and cavemen, TVs, amoebas, volcanoes, Godzilla and dogs. Especially dinosaurs and dogs. He’s in touch with his primal roots, a master of survival who lives my instinct while craving love.

Enter Dale (Reiter), a smarmy and profane wheeler-dealer in a cheap polyester suit, who wants Hertel’s commercially valuable wasteland.

“If you could have anything you wanted,” he asks, “and don’t think about how much it costs, what would it be?”

Clearly, he has picked the wrong target, but he is nothing if not persistent. He’s also not as bright as his prey, but that won’t matter once he enlists the help of Hertel’s estranged wife and his mother, who would be all too happy to force the sale.

Kaye (Shirley Panek) is the sheriff in town, and coincidentally Hertel’s ex-wife: a hard-nosed and practical force for order with a sympathetic ear and an appreciation for the financial freedom Dale offers. Torn between abiding affection for Hertel and frustration at his candidness and inherent lack of ambition, she worries over him like a mother, a relation he’s been missing.

Mother Anita (Kathryn Huston), who flew the coop when he was little, mysteriously reappears soon after Dale’s visit. She’s got quite a checkered history of her own, the most salient part being where she “drifted away from God and got into real estate.” If Hertel has a dog’s intuition, Anita has the business acumen of a pit bull, but she’s so cool and charming about it we trust her.

Colonial Players have mounted a fine production that, being light on visual and sound effect, relies almost exclusively on the ability of four actors. Carr and Reiter are brilliant, while Panek and Huston turn in solid portrayals of complex women. The only frustrating thing about this show is some of the blocking. Since Colonial’s is a theater in the round, particular attention must be paid to all four sides of the audience. Those seated in section C see more of Hertel’s back than his face, and when he lies down center stage to deliver a long speech, he is obscured by props.

Hertel defends his obstinacy with a bold statement; “There is an obligation that we have to the things we have loved.” This play ferrets out the believers from the fakers while addressing the roots of our modern evolutionary discontent: our obligation to all things living and loved amid mounting materialism and progress. Entertaining and provocative, this is a play you won’t soon forget.

Directed by Carol Youmans. Set by Carol Youmans and Dick Whaley. Costumes by Julie Bays. Lights by Andrea Elward. Sound by David Colburn. Stage manager: Herb Elkin. June 17 thru 26

Playing thru June 26 at 8pm Th-Sa; 2pm June 20 and 26; and 7:30pm June 20 at Colonial Players, 108 East St., Annapolis. rsvp; $20: 410-268-7373;