If you grew up in the 1970s or 80s, you know about the Space Race. You know about the Cold War, about the Berlin Wall, ICBMs and Mutually Assured Destruction. You know about that the way Millenials know about Pokémon and Barney the purple dinosaur. But, apparently, if you were born any time after that, it’s not a sure bet you’d have ever heard of any of those things. At least that’s the impression one gets when watching Space Dogs, a two-handed, multi-media “puppet” show playing at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space through March 13.
Written and performed by Van Hughes and Nick Blaemire, two Broadway veterans who were both in a string of high profile shows ten to fifteen years ago, “Space Dogs” at first seems to promise to be a powerful, compelling show because of these credentials. But there’s a substantial gulf between being part of a big production and putting on one of your own. It’s probably likely for actors like Hughes and Blaemire, who had enormous success at a relatively young age (in their early-to mid-twenties), to imagine that there’s nothing they can’t do extremely well. But being an accomplished actor does not guarantee one will be a great writer or comic as well.
“Space Dogs” is a somewhat jovial attempt to tell the story of the Soviet Union’s side of the space race and Russia’s “Chief Designer,” an ominous and mysterious figure (often alluded to in literary works like Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff) whose mission was to send a man into space before the Americans. Recently declassified information, they tell us, suggest he’d been a respected scientist long imprisoned under Stalin, but released to start the space program. His mission was not merely nationalistic, but motivated by his desire to survive. He was, therefore, relentless, and according to the narrators, understandably ruthless in his efforts. Ultimately, after the successful launch of Sputnik, the non-functioning satellite that changed the world, the Chief Designer used live subjects to test the viability of human survival in space: dogs. A large percentage of those dogs—including a sweet-faced female mutt named Laika who’s famous for being one of the first living creatures in space—ended up dying (of oxygen deprivation or overheating) in these experiments. So what this all adds up to is that “Space Dogs” is a celebration, of sorts, of dogs being tortured in a cruel and inhumane scientific experiment.
Perhaps if the presentation of all this disturbing information had been entertaining or appropriately satirical it could have been more palatable. The contrast between the marketing material for this show and the delivery is disappointing. Though it’s sold as a multimedia musical with puppets that tells “a sweeping kaleidoscopic tale,” it’s actually a fairly superficial story with a lot of uninspired songs and stuffed animals (which are, emphatically, not puppets). Add to that several moments of blinding and flashing lights and, despite posted warnings to people prone to seizures, you have a production that’s pretty much a scripted migraine. How director Ellie Heyman didn’t think to set the show on a more purposeful path and get its creators to re-write significant portions is hard to understand. Or perhaps she did, and that’s equally difficult to comprehend. What’s clear is that no one stepped in to tell these once successful actors that their show just wasn’t good.
Balemire and Hughes tell their story much like a child narrating his own play session, talking and singing meaningless songs, primarily to himself, as he moves his toys around his room. Their tale is disjointed and banal, punctuated with musical performances seemingly influenced by the alt rock group They Might Be Giants, but without the creativity or musicality for which the band is so well known. Blaemire and Hughes play good rock guitar licks, but none of their songs have memorable hooks or intriguing lyrics.
Perhaps the only impressive part of the production is the creative use of multimedia tools (thanks to a rather large design team), including green screens and off-stage cameras that allow them to project images across the main screen, as they role-play Russian scientists and Secretary Khrushchev with alarmingly bad accents that sound like Steve Carell’s “Gru” character in the animated “Despicable Me” movies.
One gets the impression that “Space Dogs” suffers from the same things as many of those late-in-the-show Saturday Night Live skits. You often hear that those pieces played extremely well in the writer’s room and in cast run-throughs, but that once they air it was evident they were appreciated only because of the “inside baseball” nature of their construction. That’s what I hope happened here, because I simply can’t understand why “Space Dogs” was produced in the first place.
Space Dogs. Through March 13 at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space (511 West 52nd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues). www.mcctheater.org
Photos: Daniel J. Vasquez