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Call of the Wild 

John Steppling's Dog Mouth

Wednesday, Jan 16 2002
ABOUT I5 YEARS AGO, WHEN he was turning 35, John Steppling was being touted by the local press as Los Angeles' most important homegrown playwright. Richard Stayton, writing for the Herald Examiner, went so far as to dub Steppling L.A.'s only playwright -- a reductive assessment, but also an indication both of the media's hunger to have a theater scribe to call its own, and of the excitement among L.A.'s underground literati over Steppling's uniquely terse, dank vision.

"Bud, you wanna cup a coffee, Bud?" a young woman says to a man waxing his surfboard in The Shaper, among Steppling's earliest plays. She drones on in this vein, sometimes shifting the sequence of key words, until the man looks up and stares at her blankly. Blackout. Meanwhile, for the transitions between such scenes in The Shaper's premiere production (directed by Steppling in 1985), an electric guitar riffed at deafening volume before abruptly cutting out for the next truncated scene between two human beings, half dead on meth and completely missing each other's signals.

I hated this bludgeoning production. And yet, almost two decades later, I haven't forgotten it.

Dog Mouth, Steppling's first full-length work to be produced here in ten years (for Padua Playwrights Productions and Evidence Room), feels as though it's populated by The Shaper's characters -- still on meth, still disconnected from everything and everybody around them, still making life-altering plans no more than two hours before acting on them, still dying. Yet, in many ways, Steppling's people have grown up and found something they want to say, to express in sardonic, reflective speeches as though in a play by Chekhov or Beckett. Most of Dog Mouth's characters are, like their author, around 50 years old. But while their bodies may be surrendering to time's ravages, the same is certainly not true of their wit -- which, in the case of the title character, Dog Mouth (Stephen Davies), is as feral as his name suggests:

I'll have to step off the sidewalk for this woman because this new expensive stroller is big, it's bigger than it needs to be, and it's big and I step off into the gutter usually, and there are times that as she passes the child will turn its head while seated in the stroller, turn its little head and look at me and then I'll make a terrible face, the most awful hideous face I know how to make and my tongue will come out and flap at this child and usually it happens that the child will start to cry.

The idea for the play stems from a newspaper story about a declining criminal fraternity of rail-hopping hobos in the Pacific Northwest, the leader of which (here, Dog Mouth) once matched pitbulls and is reputed to have pushed a man to his death from a moving train. And though Dog Mouth, wanted by the law, is now dying of cancer, he is followed, puppylike, by young runaway Nyah (Nia Gwynne), pregnant with his child. Thus, imminent birth and imminent death walk side by side across the play's brutal, outdoor Mojave Desert landscape. (A pair of train tracks traverses Jason Adams' open, epochal set, while the actors' feet audibly scrunch on the sand beneath them.)

The burly repartee between Dog Mouth and his sidekick, Becker (James Storm), briefly turns the play into a latter-day Waiting for Godot of the American West -- until, by the end of Act 1, it becomes clear that, rather than waiting for Godot, or God, or nothing at all, Dog Mouth and Becker plan to kill a man named Mueller, a violator of some loyalty code, the details of which are pointedly obscure. Act 2 ä opens in Phoenix, Arizona, physically suggested by the addition of a rusted oil drum and a roll of steel cable to the set's desert floor. Dog Mouth has arrived, he says, to buy a dog from an African-American named Weeks (Hugh Dane, who attacks the role with manic glee). Meanwhile, Nyah grows increasingly hysterical at the prospect and potential consequences of Mueller's assassination. (Even this self-detonating romantic recognizes that this is no way to start nesting.)

The play's subtext is a series of dogfights among this quartet of characters, a Pinteresque drama of menace (threats, retreats, occasional attacks to the throat and consequent yelping), a roundelay of dominance and submission that's sordidly entertaining, particularly in the hands of actors who bring so much frenzied energy to their roles. Steppling can thank Davies and Storm, especially, for embodying his distinction between a dog and a pet, between a beast that looks death in the eye and one that eagerly fetches balls. This refers, of course, not just to canines but to a human pool of ferocious independents, versus a mainstream of obsequious servants.

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