Only the lonely populate The Found Dog Ribbon Dance, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that Dominic Finocchiaro’s wondrous World Premiere is anywhere near a downer. On the contrary, the latest from Echo Theater Company is precisely the kind of play you’ll want to tell all your romcom-loving friends (and just about anyone else in search of smart, funny, heartstrings-tugging, feel-good new theater) not to miss.
A stunning Amanda Saunders stars as Norma, whose eight-months-and-counting career detour into professional “cuddling” has insured a lineup of lonely clients in need of the oxytocin jolt the human brain releases when body touches body, even in a non-sexual way.
Among the cuddled are Dave (Eric Gutierrez), a divorced worrywart with a fondness for adult-sized boys’ pajamas; Xeno (Gregory Itzin), whose advanced years remind Norma of her granddad; teenaged Trista (Clarissa Thibeaux), unwilling to remove her long-sleeved hoodie until convinced her she’s in a safe space; and alpha-male business exec Harrison (West Liang), who catches Norma on so bad a day, he might just as well have called his ex-boyfriend for a cuddle.
As if balancing all these unbalanced lives weren’t already enough for one cuddler to handle, there’s also the matter of Dog (Daniel Hagen), the homeless mutt whom Norma’s given shelter while awaiting responses to the Found Dog fliers she’s tacked up around town, including a neighborhood coffee-house whose barista (Steven Strobel as Norm) takes some persuading before accepting the “unwritten rule” that fliers aren’t in fact verboten.
Unfortunately for dog owners desperately seeking missing pets, Norma’s antiquated flip-phone takes shots so blurry, it’s pretty much a given that those who show up at Norma’s door will end up going home disappointed.
These include Colt (Gabriel Santorangelo), a teen skateboarder whose defensiveness and bravado hide a heart broken by loss-of-dog, and Miranda (Julie Dretzin), an under-the-gun working mom who’s discovered that even married to a stay-at-home dad, you can’t have it all.
Playwright Finocchiaro balances this idiosyncratic bunch of characters quite deftly indeed, certainly more deftly than Norma, who finds herself increasingly frazzled by clients with needs perhaps greater than she can fulfill (and dog owners every bit as needy), all the while cautiously feeling out the romantic possibilities of a relationship with Norm, whose social ineptitude might be off-putting were the man who posts YouTube videos of himself ribbon-dancing to Whitney Houston in lucha libre mask and garb not so darned irresistible.
It’s easy to imagine Finocchiario’s engagingly quirky script transformed into a Sundance-ready indie, with festival faves like Greta Gerwig, Adam Driver, and Allison Janney eagerly snapping up roles large or small.
But “names” are hardly needed under Alana Dietze’s inspired, nuanced directions as a cast of L.A. stage-and-screen vets and newbies more than give A-listers a run for their money, beginning with the luminous Saunders, whose silences speak as eloquently as her words in the kind of multilayered star turn that scores award nominations.
Gutierrez’s three scenes and Itzin’s two give them more stage time than their fellow featured players, and both are heartbreakingly wonderful, as are Liang, Dretzin, and Thibeaux in their briefer moments, with Santorangelo showing particular promise in a performance that sneaks up on you and slays.
Last but not least is Hagen’s Dog, who despite an entirely human appearance, will have you visualizing to perfection the hangdog pooch who can’t help but get under Norma’s skin.
Kirk Wilson’s multi-locale scenic design makes imaginative use of the Atwater Village stage with scene changes that take place in a flash. Jesse Baldridge’s lighting, Elena Flores’s costumes, and Gillian Moon’s sound design are all as good as 99-seat theater gets.
The Found Dog Ribbon Dance is produced by Chris Fields and Jesse Cannady. Amanda Wagner is production stage manager. Rivianna Hyatt is assistant director, Isobel Bradbury is dramaturg, and Ben Horwitz is associate producer. Jacqueline Besson understudies the role of Trista.
You don’t have to be a romantic or a cockeyed optimist to fall in love with The Found Dog Ribbon Dance. Truth be told, Finocchiaro’s 90-minute gem proves so winning, it just might make you one.
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave, Atwater Village.
January 23, 2107
Photos: Darrett Sanders