A dog that paws-up a “Heil Hitler”? Sounds like the kind of twisted notion that could only have sprouted from the mind of an absurdist playwright. While it is the central action in Mac Wellman’s latest one-act, The Offending Gesture, the stupid pet trick is ripped from an even stranger page of World War II history: Finnish businessman Tor Borg taught his Dalmatian mix, Jackie, to raise a paw whenever the Führer’s name was mentioned. The Nazis, known for their nonexistent strand of humor, somehow found out, took it as an insult, and summoned Borg to the German Embassy in Helsinki.
The first scene in Wellman’s play depicts the interrogation, only it’s Jackie (Kristine Haruna Lee) who faces wrathful yet silly threats from outlandishly dressed (somewhere between mod revival and Trekkie) Third Reichers. Such as: “We have ways to make you speak, absurd doggy.” And: “Your rage is nothing to ours.” Carefully crafted yet hollow lines pervade the script, which is both disappointingly dense and unsatisfying in its ability to explore an intriguing premise: What happens when a gesture is delivered without any of the meaning it was created to convey? By a dog that can’t possibly understand its symbolism? (Humans and dogs converse fluidly in the world Wellman creates, but their levels of thought are vastly different.)
“But the dogs however sweet and loveable are not much when it comes to abstract thinking — their logic is sincere, but very doggish,” the playwright explains in the detailed program notes. This becomes problematic, because his ambitions for the arc of the story are quite abstract — our post–9-11 invasion of Iraq is sloppily threaded through, along with a Greek-like chorus that chants Alaina Ferris’s nondescript score — yet much of the dialogue is given to Jackie and her newfound canine ally, Blondi (Abby Rosebrock), Hitler’s aptly named German shepherd. The result is a numbing inertia.
Rosebrock brings a great manic energy to the dictator’s pup that dovetails nicely with Lee’s demure inquisitiveness, but they’re not given enough distinctive characteristics by Wellman or director Meghan Finn: Through many stretches of dialogue, it’s easy to forget they’re dogs! A third pooch, a bulldog named Wuffles who belongs to Winston Churchill, remains offstage (and is solely an invention of the playwright). He’s used as a way to introduce Churchill’s creation of Iraq (combining the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds — or, in doggyspeak, “Sunfish, Shits, and Turds”). This sort of wordplay appears frequently and amounts more to a source of annoyance than humor. Likewise, Layla Khoshnoudi plays Hitler (named Noble Wolf, the English translation of Adolf) with a farcical abandon, but the material is too opaque for any real levity to land.
Edward Albee uses the phrase “You’ve prevented me from participating in your play” to describe a frustrating theater experience, and those words are likely to echo through your mind during these eighty minutes of tangled verbosity. Wellman writes with a unique blend of poetry, puns, and non sequiturs that confound more than they illuminate and never fail to feel written. “I do the gesture as it gives me a please, a pleasure in the right front foot department,” is one of Jackie’s most straightforward lines, and it could easily have been lopped in half. While the title gesture is repeated throughout and mentioned ad nauseam, the actual offense is that it never rises to more than a background din. The final moments attempt to spell out a theme that should have been gradually building throughout, and only in the last line does Wellman finally pose a question worth asking.
The Offending Gesture
By Mac Wellman
The Connelly Theater
220 East 4th Street