This production of Dominic Finocchiaro’s The Found Dog Ribbon Dance wants to be wry and whimsical and deeply revelatory but succeeds only fractionally, especially with the revelatory part.
The story revolves around Norma (Amanda Saunders), a professional cuddler who services folks in need of affection, touch and reassurance and who customizes her sessions — you can sleep or remain awake, engage in conversation or be silent, for example — to their particular predilections. Though a genuinely caring person who appears good at her job, Norma herself is unattached, and her venture into the dating game with local barista Norm (Steven Strobel) is a rocky one, due mostly to his neuroses but also due to her own skittishness when it comes to relationships.
Norma does, however, form an attachment to a dog (Dan Hagan, wearing a T-shirt that reads DOG) that she found on the street. She advertises, unsuccessfully, to find its owners; as time goes on, her bond with the animal evolves. A couple of people show up to claim the dog, but when it’s obvious he doesn’t know them, Norma battles them away and he remains with her.
Between Norma’s clients and the would-be animal owners, her studio is host to a parade of offbeat or just plain disturbed characters — an insulting and pugnacious youth (Gabriel Notarangelo), a silent elderly man (Gregory Itzin), a young woman whose arms are covered with self-inflicted wounds (Clarissa Thibeaux). One very needy client (Eric Gutierrez) mistakes her professional tenderness for an invitation to sexual intimacy, and she has to fight him off. Norma does her best to handle it all with dignity, compassion and aplomb, but these experiences are wearing on her, and are perhaps why the dog becomes important in her life.
One reason the production doesn’t quite gel is that Saunders seems wrong for the role. She’s fine portraying Norma the caretaker, where she reflects a natural inner grace, but under Alana Dietze’s direction, the edginess and insecurities that would make this character, and the play itself, more intriguing aren’t visible to the audience. As her hyper-nervous suitor, Strobel is exaggeratedly one-note — so in the end you don’t really care about this relationship. Several of the other supporting performances are also without layers; however, there’s good work (the best of the evening) from West Liang as a disgruntled customer who decides this touchy-feely stuff is all B.S., and from Julie Dretzin as a strident woman who insists on having the dog although it isn’t hers. Hagan is consistently entertaining as the canine in question.
The other aspect of the production that had me wondering was the set design (by Kirk Wilson), which has a bed on an elevated platform at the center of the proscenium (the same one used in the production of Sheila Callaghan's Bed last year?) with the audience on three sides. It makes sense from a symbolic standpoint, I guess, since cuddling on the bed is the focus of Norma’s life, and a number of scenes take place there. But the platform takes up a lot of space, and the practical results are to shift other important interchanges to the periphery where they are not always easily visible or in focus to everyone.
Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; through Feb. 26; (310) 307-3753, echotheatrecompany.com.