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Review: It's a dog's life in 'Larry's Best Friend'

Stories about people turning into animals must go back to the shrouded beginnings of narrative discourse, and they were a smash in the ancient world. The only novel that has come down to us intact from ancient Rome is Apuleius' "The Golden Ass," a story about a man who turns into a donkey.

Now David Hill has given us a breezy, funny play that reverses the human-beast metamorphosis. In "Larry's Best Friend," a man's dog turns into a beautiful young woman. The new romantic comedy, directed by Evalyn Hansen, had its premiere Friday, presented by Ashland Contemporary Theatre at the Bellview Grange in Ashland.

Defying the old warning about never working with kids or animals, the play opens with Larry (Douglas Young), a bachelor engineer and devoted rationalist, feeding his golden retriever, Ginger (Tiko, a 5-year-old goldie making his acting debut).

"Humans, women especially, could learn a lot about love from a dog," Larry says, hinting at one of the play's themes.

The next morning Ginger, now human and played by Emma Wilkinson, awakes with a dog's take on the world, stretching her back and legs, rolling over, needing to go outside. Meanwhile, Larry's girlfriend, Rachel (Ruby Henrie) has come under the sway of the spiritual teacher McAlister (John Litton), who talks like a cross between Carlos Castenada and Crocodile Dundee.

"She really believes all that crap," Larry says.

He castigates McAlister as a phony guru.

"He's not a guru," Rachel says. "He's a shaman."

McAlister shows up and says the dog is a spirit guide, sent to enlighten us. Larry doesn't buy it and assumes, logically, that he's either dreaming or crazy. He spends the rest of the play taking Prozac and Xanax and Ambien and shaking his head like Spock on a bad drug trip, unable to integrate this strange new reality into his rigid view of the world.

Without losing her dog-ness (licking people, eating out of the bowl, sniffing Larry's shoes, feeling unconditional love), Ginger goes about becoming human. Wilkinson is very good at all this (good girl!). She gets a job with a pet food company where her unusual management style (she samples the product), and her work ethic (she works like a dog) enable her to rise quickly. Inevitably, she begins to fall in love, or something much like it. Loyalty, after all, is far above sex in her scheme of things.

Hill has a good ear for a laugh, and "Larry's Best Friend" is full of lines that resonate with irony or sheer giddiness. While we are in on the joke, Larry can't get his mind around it, and Doug (Alexei Menedes) doesn't know the truth. This is not the sort of thing you tell somebody on the first date.

Just as animals in beast fables are understood to represent people, Ginger is on one level an analog for women. In a gently mocking way, Hill is dissecting the war of the sexes.

On still another level, there's a whiff of the cosmic. When Ginger was a dog, Larry was a sort of god to her. After her change the relationship has altered. A verifiable miracle — something that defies laws of causality as science understands them — stands to fracture the rationalist worldview of Larry, or at least bend it badly.

When faith and reason are presented as alternatives, we are almost unfailingly expected to intuit that "mere" reason has its limitations after all, and thus faith is somehow the preferred take on a mysterious universe, which might yet reward us in some way for believing the unbelievable.

Did the shaman change Ginger? Did she change herself? Will she stay or revert? What about poor Larry?

"Larry's Best Friend" is funny and engaging and not afraid to explore Big Ideas, and those are no mean virtues. It is also, at two hours and 40 minutes, in need of some judicious pruning.

Rule 17-C of playwrighting states clearly that a play about a dog that turns into a woman should be no more than two hours, max. The first act alone ran almost 90 minutes and bogged down in stretches between the laughs. It would be funnier if it were tighter, and also if it were played at more of a brisk, comic tempo.

But the actors, especially Wilkinson, bring conviction to their roles. ACT has made some improvements to the room, with a raked stage that gives way to a thrust configuration and risers for the audience. Gina Scaccia's musical interludes add just the right whimsical-mystical air.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.