It is hard to imagine a more sensitive production of "Red Dog Howls" than the one now at the New York Theatre Workshop. With Kathleen Chalfant as a strong but isolated 91-year-old survivor of the 1915 Armenian genocide, playwright Alexander Dinelaris has the very model of humane gravitas -- her hard bones and hollows can turn mordant, then loving with all the magic and mystery of a blue-period Picasso woman.
But sincere plays about unfathomable horrors are a daunting challenge, and this one, for all its sober intentions, has the secondhand quality of terrible events retold conscientiously.
Director Ken Rus Schmoll divides the playing area into three spaces -- one for the old woman's surprisingly overdecorated Washington Heights apartment. The others, far more stark, are for scenes of affection and strife with a young married couple -- tenderly played by Florencia Lozano and Alfredo Narciso.
He portrays Michael Kiriakos, narrator of this story, a man whose deep Greek roots and motherless family history are pulled out by what the old woman finally tells him. When his father died, he was left a mysterious box of letters he was to burn. The son copies the address and seeks answers, which the old woman parcels out more parsimoniously than her Armenian soup. She wants him to get strong. Meanwhile, Michael's pregnant wife gets pushed away.
Michael begins with a monologue that tells us, portentously, "There are sins that cannot be absolved." The writing is both poetic and way too pedestrian. "I don't know who I am, but I am trying to find out if I can be a man," says Michael to his incredibly tolerant wife. According to a note in the program, Dinelaris -- whose writing range includes the ironic gay musical "Zanna Don't!" and the book for the new London musical adaptation of "The Bodyguard" -- has been working on this at least since 2007. Clearly, he is haunted by the material, which is not the same as being able to haunt us.
WHAT "Red Dog Howls"
WHERE New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St.
INFO $65, 212-279-4200, nytw.org
BOTTOM LINE Unbearable horror retold with good intentions