On Sundays Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.

2006_07_arts_crazydog.jpgChristopher Boal’s play Crazy for the Dog is a sharp, bleak but also sometimes darkly funny look at some tough human relationships; it’s a good production, but one wonders if perhaps the real reason Jean Cocteau Rep has had enough success with it that it’s now extending is more because most New Yorkers are such animal fanatics, and the show mercilessly tugs at the ol’ heartstrings even without parading a cute puppy on stage. This is after all the city of pet taxis and emotional support animals, where headlines for days are given over to the story of a cat trapped in a wall. How could we not be drawn into a play built around the plight of a shih tzu as well as the memory of three pathetic, mewling kitties? The show definitely has other merits, but if you love animals be prepared to have your concern for that element of the plot overwhelm much of the rest.

The play doesn’t actually even begin with the animals, but it does set up from the first the cutting, bitterly contentious atmosphere that permeates both acts. Jenny (played by Wrenn Schmidt with an appropriately disagreeable pout) has called her older brother Paul (Patrick Melville) home from his job in order to berate him for secretly planning to leave NYC for California, and to ensnare him in a kooky campaign of revenge also aimed at her ex-boyfriend Kevin (Ryan Tramont). Jenny has chips to play against both men: Paul’s dog Pete, who she was supposed to be looking after, and Kevin’s valuable baseball cards, which she stole – but she’s not very good at the game and it quickly goes haywire. As she tries to get Paul to confess what she sees as his past sins against her (and the three cats their mother kept when they were kids), the story of their miserable upbringing spills out messily and they both become unhinged, which is alarming in Jenny’s case since she was already acting nuts, and even more so with Paul because he seems to have it together, has his psychobabble-filled vocabulary from therapy down pat, has a good job and a sweet, intelligent wife (played with welcome calm by Christine Verleny).

Exactly what the true point of Jenny’s childish but effective game is never becomes that clear, and just about everything about the situation and the characters is over-the-top, but it’s also weirdly compelling to watch, like a fiery car crash.

It’s also a bit uncomfortable to be looking on as things get more fiercely personal, especially in a small space like the Bouwerie Lane Theatre – it feels like when you’re at a friend’s house and she and a relative or other friend get into some argument that has nothing to do with you, and all you can do is try to make yourself invisible. The cast helps make the melodrama more palatable by going with it as far as is called for and not showing embarrassment, but not further, and Patrick Melville in particular does an excellent job showing Paul’s dizzying descent from stoicism and stability to a dangerous combination of blind rage and despair on account of his dog and the memory of the three cats; his character, much more than the others, forces one to keep reevaluating him, not taking him for granted as a type. As the group races on in search of answers to questions both immediate (where is Pete? where are the baseball cards?) and rhetorical or nebulous (who is more important to you, your spouse or your pet? etc.), the aura of slight far-fetchedness means you aren’t forced to take stock of your own world view and relationships in light of what’s on stage, but you are at least drawn into what’s happening there, and eager to know how it will end, which makes the non-conclusion more of a let-down than usual; nothing in life ever ends, of course, but since the play already feels heightened from life, it seems unnecessary to stick to any such restrictions at the last.

So where does that leave us? Crazy for the Dog takes place over the course of a few hours in an afternoon in New York, just enough time to glimpse some of the darkness of the characters’ lives and past, and maybe to like them or at least feel bad for them; those of us who love animals will probably, more than focusing on the human issues in the play, ask ourselves about the role of our own pets in our lives, which I’m not sure was Boal’s intention. That’s actually not a bad thing, though, for this city of outrageously pampered dogs and cats, and since it comes in what, weaknesses of excess considered, struck me as an engaging, original package, so much the better.

Bouwerie Lane Theatre // 330 Bowery // Through Aug. 26, Tues.-Sat. 8pm, Sat. also 2pm // Tickets here