From the moment the lights come up on Bad Dog at Olney Theatre Center, anti-heroine Molly Drexler’s (Holly Twyford) reputation precedes her. Smack in the middle of a modest house–ingeniously designed by Tony Cisek–the audience is confronted by a chasmal hole in the living room wall, covered with a duct-taped web of mismatched garbage bags.
Molly’s older sisters—Becky (Amy McWilliams) and Linda (Emily Townley)—sweep in with an air of exasperated resignation, making preparations for a family intervention for their youngest sister, nicknamed “Hurricane Molly.” Concern turns quickly to chiding as they recount Molly’s plunge “off the wagon,” ending in a drunken joy ride in her Prius–through her own living room wall.
When Molly enters, bruised and battered, arm in a sling and dressed like an overgrown teenager, she looks every bit the family deadbeat. But when she opens her mouth, she’s quick-witted, ebullient, and bitingly funny. Molly is not just the family screw-up, but also the fixer, playfully deflecting conflict with pithy quips and self-deprecation.
And the more Molly talks, the more you want to believe her. Perhaps her life isn’t the disaster her family wants to believe? Recent catastrophes aside, Molly has a lovely albeit drafty home, ten years sobriety, and a beautiful, self-possessed wife, Abby (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), who remains fiercely devoted to her. Suddenly—despite all that’s been seen and heard—you find yourself rooting for the underdog.
Such is the genius of playwright Jennifer Hoppe-House, who pulls the audience into the throng of the dysfunctional, deeply-scarred Drexler family and gives you a seat at the intervention. Best known for her work on hit Netflix series Nurse Jackie and Damages, Hoppe-House is adept at filling out each character through succinct, believable dialogue that resorts neither to narration nor rehashing of past events.
At the center of the drama–and best showcasing Hoppe-House’s distinct style of repartee—is the relationship between Molly and Linda, which elegantly straddles the line between ribbing and recrimination. If anything, the sisters’s exchanges seem implausibly scripted at times—a bit too writerly—though both characters are professional writers according to the script.
Twyford and Townley are nonetheless positively magnetic in these exchanges, creating a palpable tension that seethes beneath the surface of every exchange. Director Jeremy B. Cohen nurtures this tension, several times bringing it to the point of near implosion at the mention of a mysterious “Mark” from the sisters’s shared past, only to pull it back again and again as the sisters scrabble and claw to rise above it.
While Bad Dog’s remaining characters seem less finely writ, Hoppe-House ensures that not one escapes unscathed. Eldest sister Becky (McWilliams) might be overlooked for her prom-king husband, cloying serenity, and omnipresent fanny pack. But Becky’s self-professed benevolence is soon tested when Molly’s needs threaten her white-picket-fence dreams. McWilliams, who plays the innocent to great comedic effect, is at her best when given an opportunity to bare her fangs.
Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan has fewer opportunities to lash out as the measured, almost stoic Abby, who takes up the mantel as Molly’s protector and as the voice of reason and calm. Keegan, however, aptly portrays Abby’s internal struggles through her ever-increasing lack of self-control and her connection with her wife.
Lois (Naomi Jacobson), the girls’s mother, is afforded some of Hoppe-House’s wryest, biting comedic lines as she confronts her cheating ex-husband (Leo Erickson) and Sondra (Gladys Rodriguez), the topless-waitress-turned-second-wife, for the first time in 30 years. Jacobson seems to channel the Golden Girls’s character Sophia Petrillo in her bitingly sarcastic, tough-as-nails portrayal. Erickson and Rodriguez—along with Carlos Sandana in several smaller roles—round out the overall excellent cast.
But ultimately it’s Twyford who reels you in—first with her relentless charm and then with a performance so emotionally raw the audience itself feels battered and bruised. Bad Dog is the kind of theater that gnaws at you long after you’ve left. And for those in DC, it’s well worth the drive to Olney.