The Found Dog Ribbon Dance

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

Dominic Finocchiaro’s tender, new play, The Found Dog Ribbon Dance focuses on Norma (Amanda Saunders), a cuddle therapist. Though the program features a couple of ads for cuddle workshops, Cuddle Therapy is, for me, a hitherto unknown freelance occupation. But, it is one that proves a goldmine for a canny playwright like Finnochiaro.

Norma is a loner who has chosen a profession that forces her into intimate, but non-sexual, contact with her clients. She has also found a stray Dog (Daniel Hagen). We know he’s a dog, because he says “Bark” and wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the word “Dog.” Yes, it is that type of play, but it is also so much more.

While posting “Found Dog” flyers around the neighborhood, Norma meets Norm (Stephen Strobel), an endearing but socially inept barista with mismatched socks and a penchant for dancing alone to Whitney Houston songs. Their tentatively burgeoning relationship is the heart of the play.

The constant stream of clients with their problems and quirks is fertile comedic soil and could easily spawn an entertaining but ephemeral laughfest with outsized characters and a dismissive attitude towards the job. Finnochiaro is aiming for something different and, with the help of Alana Dietze’s admirably detailed direction and an exceptional cast, he achieves it.

The playwright’s carefully crafted dialog swiftly and incisively sketches the clients and lost dog owners who visit Norma. But we also see cracks in the veneer which expose the characters’ inner fears, a feat made more impressive by the fact that few of them are seen more than once.

Despite having the most stage time, we probably understand Norma the least of any character. Saunders makes that an asset and beautifully plays the character’s opacity, adding to her intrigue by dropping subtle hints about Norma’s issues along the way. With Norm, Strobel is given the gift of a character you can’t help liking. But, not content to settle for the easy laughs, he imbues Norm with bravery and such a loving spirit that you’ll wind up wanting to cuddle him.

The Echo Theater Company is known for its excellent work with new plays, and this world premiere is no exception. But their usual fare, even when comedic, tends to be darker than The Found Dog Ribbon Dance. No doubt they understand that the play’s message of hope and the healing power of companionship is a tonic for our troubled times.

Atwater Village Theatre    January 21 – February 26, 2017