A review of the world premiere adaptation of “The Dog of the South,” a cult Southern novel by Charles Portis, presented by Book-It Repertory Theatre.
Ray Midge is on a mission to track down his wife, her lover and the blue Ford Torino and credit card they nicked from him. But it’s a toss-up whether this earnest bookworm will complete his quest, during a road trip deep to the heart of Eccentric-Ville, which takes him from Little Rock, Ark., to Texas, through Mexico, and on to the wilds of British Honduras (Belize).
The more pertinent matter is whether Book-It Repertory Theatre can wrestle a rollicking play out of cult yarn “The Dog of the South,” by the novelist Charles Portis.
After a sputtering start, and in one long blast that cries out for an intermission, the Book-It version eventually gets into gear, gaining humor and propulsion once Ray starts careening from one quirky travel encounter to another.
‘The Dog of the South’
By Charles Portis, adapted by Judd Parkin. Through March 8, Book-It Repertory Theatre at Center Theater, Seattle Center; $25 (206-216-0833 or book-it.org).
“Dog of the South” was published in the late ’70s (about a decade after Portis penned his best-known and famously filmed novel, “True Grit”). Though the author’s style has been likened to the freewheeling prose of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, this book sits squarely in the tradition of the wild-and-woolly Southern picaresque novel, first perfected in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and carried on in notable fictions by Flannery O’Connor,John Kennedy Toole and others.
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Book-It’s 2009 staging of Toole’s best-seller “A Confederacy of Dunces” swung for the fences and missed. It tried too hard to sell the surreal zaniness of that jaundiced New Orleans satire, and the effort wore you out.
In his adaptation for Book-It, Judd Parkin’s script maps out a clearer route through the Portis tale. At the wheel is a fictional original: Ray, a likably clueless military-history nerd of 26, who approaches life with good-natured bafflement and an ex-copy editor’s obsession with factual and grammatical precision.
Ray’s stilted elocution, keen observation and utter obliviousness and his sharp “rat-like” features are neatly consolidated in actor Christopher Morson’s portrayal. (Morson played Huck Finn for Book-It a while back).
The actor seems more boyish than the methodical stoic suggested in the novel. He brings a sweet Chaplinesque quality to the role, opposite ditsy Shannon Loys as Ray’s beloved and understandably restless wife Norma and Joshua C. Williamson as Ray’s psycho rival and nemesis, Guy Dupree.
But it’s hard onstage to fully mirror Ray’s thought process, while translating a deadpan narrative into pumped-up action. In Jane Jones’ lively staging, the performances bang along broadly, pedal to the metal, at first. They don’t hit cruising speed until Ray reaches Mexico and gets entangled with colorful screwballs who are funnier the less you exaggerate them.
Jim Gall is a tragical hoot as Dr. Reo Symes, the incorrigible, grizzled hustler who hitches a ride with Ray and tries to convert him to a self-help philosophy that clearly hasn’t worked out for himself. Gall masters the preposterous riffing and ranting and scheming of this traveling companion from hell, bringing to mind a hopped-up W.C. Fields, and the immortal Hunter S. Thompson dictum: “When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.”
Ray haplessly goes along on a detour, resulting in episodes with marginally saner kooks: the doc’s shotgun-toting, lay minister mama, and her oddball companion, Melba. The two are etched, with hilarious sincerity, by (respectively) Suzy Hunt and Gin Hammond.
With the right actors in charge of characters who have no clue how absurd they are, and better pacing as Ray’s quest lurches onward, “Dog of the South” picks up mirth before ending on a bittersweet note. The single act, at nearly two hours, feels mighty packed. But if you hunger for additional roadside adventures, the Portis novel is back in print.
Information in this article, originally published Feb. 19, 2015, was corrected Feb. 19, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Charles Portis was deceased.