"Four Dogs and a Bone" makes for a fiercely funny kennel. 

The Firehouse Bares Its Teeth

"Four Dogs and a Bone"
Firehouse Theatre
8 p.m.
Through May 22

"If you had a friend, you'd eat him," a rookie screenwriter says to a veteran movie producer in "Four Dogs and a Bone," the one-liner-laced play written by John Patrick Shanley. The producer isn't the only man-eater in this show; equally unflattering things could be said about any of the characters in Firehouse Theatre Project's darkly hilarious production that skewers the movie biz in blistering fashion.

The "four dogs" are a quartet of Hollywood types who lie, cheat, connive and conspire in attempts to take control of a movie production that seems destined for disaster. As the show progresses, allegiances shift and conflicts erupt while we wait to see just how low these people will go. That the characters are all wretched human beings isn't a problem. It's the point. Such a flimsy concept may make this donnybrook rather shallow, but it's a shamefully delightful bit of mayhem just the same.

Shanley wrote the screenplay for "Moonstruck" years ago, and if "Four Dogs" is any indication, the experience scarred him deeply. Shanley's sympathies are clear; he makes Victor, the screenwriter (played by Jeff Clevenger), the only one here who has the approximation of a soul. There are no appropriate superlatives to describe Clevenger's performance. With his background in improvisational comedy, his effortless delivery of the play's best jokes might have been expected. The surprise comes in the ramshackle grace he gives Victor as he navigates the emotional minefield Shanley has him traverse.

One bomb in Victor's path is the ditzy but devious actress Brenda (Stephanie Kelley). Brenda is an idiot savant of infighting. She spouts brainless drivel most of the time, then unleashes keenly incisive advice on how to change the movie's script. Kelly's talent is in making this highly unlikely character credible and even likable. Brenda works in cahoots with the creepy producer, Bradley (Rick Gray), the most nakedly wicked member of this crew. Gray projects an amusing offhand kind of treachery, colored with varying degrees of desperation.

The last "dog," aging ingenue Collette (Sara J. Heifetz), fares least well. Where Brenda is demented in a nutty way, Collette just seems pathetic. Though Heifetz shares a comfortable on-stage chemistry with Clevenger, she doesn't manage to give Collette any continuity. Her character just seems to fizzle away.

Director Steve Forth does an admirable job of keeping the sometimes manic proceedings from hurtling out of control. Even when the pace is peppy and the jokes are popping, he keeps his actors focused. That is until the scattered final scene where he seems to surrender, letting the inmates take control of the asylum.

Forth also designed the lighting, which is a bit stark and high contrast. Otherwise, the production makes decent use of the somewhat limited Firehouse stage. Pulling double-duty with Forth is Clevenger, who designed the clever set that is used to evoke three locations thanks to a nifty pivoting wall. Clevenger obviously knows what works on stage, both dramatically and technically. His expert performance helps give "Four Dogs" its formidable bite.


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