Don’t go into “Bad Dog” lightly, and don’t be fooled by its easy-access sitcom style. Yes, the dialogue by TV writer Jennifer Hoppe-House (“Nurse Jackie,” “Grace and Frankie”) bounds and glimmers during a disaster-filled family gathering. And, yes, the setting of a modest Sherman Oaks, Calif., home and its slightly sunken living room seems comfortably familiar — a cooler version, as my companion observed at Sunday’s opening, of the “Brady Bunch” house.
The family bickering is bright and funny. You’re tempted to settle in and be entertained.
But “Bad Dog” is about addiction, and when Hoppe-House’s characters finally get real, they deliver one of the most knowing and unsettling plays thus far in the citywide Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Director Jeremy B. Cohen’s cast at the Olney Theatre Center is led by Holly Twyford’s nuanced, moving portrait of the defensively charming “Hurricane Molly,” as one of her sisters calls this 40-year-old who is falling off the wagon. The show methodically draws you into the battle-torn family’s cycle of resentments as Molly hits bottom.
A car-size hole has been ripped through the living room wall because out-of-work TV writer Molly got blackout-drunk and crashed her Prius through her home. “Cute” catastrophe, right? That’s how Hoppe-House writes it as Molly’s sisters and parents arrive to deal with the crisis.
The show feels oddly perky and hectic as Hoppe-House crams out-of-town family members into Molly’s living room and kitchen. (The split-level house is expertly realized by designer Tony Cisek.) Molly shares the place with her wife, the apparently forbearing Abby (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), who Molly hopes will “protect me from the people downstairs.” Molly’s sisters have their own problems: The drab Becky (Amy McWilliams) is finally buying a home, maybe, with financial help from their father; and Linda, a high-energy journalist, is supposed to be covering a midterm election. In a colorfully prickly portrayal by Emily Townley, she seems particularly peeved that Molly’s unending string of mishaps is once again hijacking her time.
The long-divorced parents are such a predictable mess that by intermission you suspect Hoppe-House’s already busy script might be better focused without them. But then “Bad Dog” barks up the family tree to chase unhappy histories about mom Lois (a tart Naomi Jacobson) and dad Walter (an above-it-all Leo Erickson), who left Lois for the wildly stupid, brazenly bigoted tart Sandra (Gladys Rodriguez). The cackling inanities of these figures lead to good punch lines and give us the origin of Molly’s psychic scars, but the rampant self-absorption also makes you impatient.
Hoppe-House is hardly subtle as she drops hints about a guy named Mark that Molly used to know, but when that guess-able truth comes out, the pin is finally pulled, and the play explodes. What keeps it ticking steadily throughout its two hours is the tension between Molly and Linda, the two most fully drawn characters in the play. Linda has shared more history with Molly than anyone, and the biting, searching exchanges between Townley and Twyford have tremendous edge and depth. You could watch these two actresses knife this dialogue into one other for quite a while.
Twyford’s a wonder in a role that tiptoes through all the wreckage. Her quick-witted Molly is lucid but always a little lost, pacifying yet provocative, and never romanticized — it’s a deeply affecting performance. The title comes from a subplot about Molly’s dog, but of course it also applies to the much-scolded central character. Hoppe-House’s play never feels more honest than at the end as she forces everyone onstage to make a decision about Molly. The cute but sharp-toothed “Bad Dog” compels you into choosing, too. Beware.
Bad Dog by Jennifer Hoppe-House. Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Directed by Jeremy B. Cohen. Costumes, Ivania Stack; lights, Dan Covey; sound design/original musical, Joshua Horvath. With Carlos Saldaña. About two hours and 10 minutes. Through Oct. 25 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. Tickets: $42-$65. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.