Actors playing animals give a certain slant to a situation. Most often they talk like people, as in the plays Sylvia and Bengal Tiger in the Bagdad Zoo. In Dominic Finocchiaro’s new play, The Found Dog Ribbon Dance, a stray canine with the default name Dog (Daniel Hagen in a lean, soulful performance) gets taken in by Norma (excellent Amanda Saunders), a professional cuddler who, determined not to own him, tries to find Dog’s owner, no easy task. For those who never knew that cuddling is a thing, it is a profession in which one can be trained in about ten hours, the objective of which is to provide “a physical and psychic salve through spooning, arm tickling and deep embraces (Alex Williams, New York Times).”
As the play unfolds, Norma comes in contact with cuddling clients and those who respond to a notice she posts in a coffee shop describing Dog, along with a blurry photo. All the characters save one have varying degrees of emotional quirks that are often hilarious until they are not. At the coffee shop she encounters an over-aged barista serendipitously named Norm (Steven Strobel), a quirky, bottled-up guy whose private passion is doing a ribbon dance to the music of Whitney Houston while wearing a lucha libre mask. They strike up a jittery relationship that is comically endearing.
Norma’s clients respond to her cuddles in vastly different ways. Dave (Eric Gutierrez), a divorcé who wears pajamas with a flashy outer space theme, endearingly rubs his feet together as he gets his hugs. A high school senior, the aptly named Trista (Clarissa Thibeaux) is a sad, lonely, misunderstood client with more than the usual amount of teenaged angst. Harrison (West Liang), a balled-up knot of a businessman, can’t even bring himself to try Norma’s therapy.
Two characters come into Norma’s place looking for their lost dogs. Colt (Gabriel Notarangelo), is an edgy, defensive skate-rat, while Miranda (the fierce Julie Dretzin) is a hard charging capitalist with a whirlwind of anger and privilege desperate to find her children’s missing dog.
Xeno (Gregory Itzin), an older man, is the only client who is emotionally centered and calm of demeanor. He speaks not a word until he finally must.
The Found Dog Ribbon Dance is a fast-paced crowd pleaser. It boasts a lean, tightly-written, serio-comic script enhanced by the savvy direction of Alana Dietze. The scenic design of Kirk Wilson, with lighting by Jesse Baldridge, consists of a large platform bed centered in the space, which is configured with audience on four sides. Smaller, peripheral areas represent the coffee shop, Norm’s apartment, a restaurant and the great outdoors. Elena Flores’s costume design reinforces character and action, as does the sound design of Gillian Moon.
The Echo Theatre Company production of The Found Dog Ribbon Dance extends through March 12 at Atwater Village Theatre , 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles.