“I am rigorously inept,” protests Molly Drexler, the freshly relapsed alcoholic masterfully played by Holly Twyford in the acidic comedy Bad Dog. She’s being cute in response to her big sister Linda’s tough-love advice that she find a job, even if it isn’t screenwriting, her nominal profession. But Molly’s way with a quip has disguised the severity of her dysfunction for a long time. At 40, she’s been clean and sober for a decade, she protests—a decade that ended a day or two earlier, when she got blackout bombed and drove her Prius into the living room of the Sherman Oaks split-level she shares with her mental health-clinician girlfriend, Abby (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan).
Molly’s relapse prompts the far-flung Drexler clan to circle the wagons: Both her sisters fly in, as do their parents, though Walter and Lois Drexler have barely spoken since his infidelity with his now-wife Sondra ended his marriage to Lois 30 years ago. What appears in its first half to be a sharply written and performed but thoroughly conventional family cage-match narrows its beam, in its harrowing second act, into an unflinching examination of how cruel a disease addiction can be. Molly is surrounded by the people who love her most in the world, and it still may not be enough to stop her from killing herself. Their presence might even accelerate the process.
That the ultimate effect of all this escalation and mutual recrimination is wrenching rather than maudlin is a testament to the specificity of the writing and the strength of the company director Jeremy B. Cohen has assembled—particularly Twyford, sporting a cast and a faceful of stitches, and Emily Townley as Linda. A political reporter busy covering midterm elections, Linda doesn’t try to hide her resentment that the family has been made to drop everything and rush to Molly’s aid yet again. Abby, who has only known Molly during her long sobriety, feels compelled to keep the peace while the Drexlers are gathered under her roof, and to defend her partner against Linda’s invective. And no wonder: It almost seems like Linda is encouraging her to leave. Meanwhile, when gentler sister Becky (Amy McWilliams) urges Molly to seek help, Molly shrugs it off by singing Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.”
“I love that song, too,” Becky tells her. “But she died.”
Molly isn’t answering her sponsor’s calls, either—a fact conveyed to us through the ringtone Molly has assigned her, the Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch music cue from The Wizard of Oz. Again, Molly has gotten away with more than she ought to have by being white and upper middle class, as she acknowledges, but also by being sardonically funny. (While everyone else gasps at the casual racism Sondra espouses, Molly just eggs her on.) This insight into how humor—so often an effective bulwark against despair—can also prevent a sick person from confronting their illness is the play’s keenest.
A rolling world premiere that represents Olney Theatre Center in the ongoing Women’s Voices Theater Festival, Bad Dog is the first full-length play from Jennifer Hoppe-House, a screenwriter who has penned episodes of Nurse Jackie, Damages, and the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. While the language of addiction and treatment is modern, her sensibility is straight up Eugene O’Neill: buried family secrets, addiction, and attendant shame, ripples of psychic torment emanating from decades-old grievances. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that this is the second show in as many years (after Signature Theatre’s marvelous 2014 production of Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers) to hinge on Twyford’s ability to sell a moment of genuine, terrifying indecision. She sells it, of course. The only thing Twyford seems incapable of is giving an uncommitted or unconvincing performance.
Tony Cisek’s two-story set is as naturalistic as the acting. The stainless steel appliances in the kitchen that occupies stage-left probably all work. Stage right is the living room with that plastic-sheeting-patched hole, while above the kitchen is the bedroom where Molly steals away to crawl into the bottle.
As Walter, Leo Erickson lets us see the guilt and self-doubt Walter is trying to keep buried under his swaggering bluster. He seems grateful to Naomi Jacobson’s visor-wearing, power-walking, fast-talking Lois—her unremitting hostility towards him lets him feel victimized, instead of contemplating how his failings as a father may have led his youngest daughter down this dark path. That’s a lot for one performance to convey, but then every one of these eight actors is playing more than one emotion at once. What results isn’t comforting, but they are honest and satisfying in their complexity.
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. $15–$60. (301) 924-3400. olneytheatre.org.