Harlequin Productions’ “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is a triumph of humor and humanity, guaranteed to make you laugh and maybe even cry. Originally adapted for Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle by Myra Platt from the bestselling novel by Garth Stein, this version at Harlequin Productions is directed by Linda Whitney.
“Racing” is laugh-out-loud funny throughout most of the performance, but with moments of tragedy and grief.
This is the story of Denny (Evan Sullivan), his wife, Eve (Marianna de Fazio), their daughter, Zoey (Kaylee Heinz) and their dog, Enzo (Xander Layden). The dog is the narrator and the lead character. Enzo breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience while acknowledging that he cannot speak in words that humans can understand. Yet he also never breaks out of character as the dog. He whines and barks and wags his tail and licks his master with such believable and laughable dog-like movements that I was moved to believe this actor must have had dogs of his own and must have studied his dog’s every gesture and movement. Layden’s acting is masterful. He makes you believe in Enzo and love him.
Many of the other characters also speak directly to the audience from time to time, sometimes narrating their own actions. In many other book-inspired productions this can be an unnecessary distraction, but in this story, the Book-It derived format works marvelously.
Denny is a race car driver who works in an auto shop while trying to establish his career as a professional driver — a career that often takes him away from home for long stretches of time, which naturally causes stress at home. But it is clearly a loving home. Denny and Eve love each other and their daughter, and all three love Enzo.
The monkey wrench tossed into their happy home is thrown by Eve’s parents, Maxwell (John Serembe) and Trish (Carrie Schnelker), who are the epitome of rich and condescending, and who do not think Denny is good enough for their precious daughter.
Sullivan is believable and likable as Denny, de Fazio displays a great range of acting skill as Denny’s wife, Serembe and Schnelker play arrogant and nasty like nobody’s business. Special kudos to Hill as a teenage femme fatal, among other roles, and Michael Christopher as an Italian driver and a no-nonsense lawyer. Everybody in the cast except for Layden and Sullivan play multiple roles. Other members of the ensemble are Elex Hill, Christopher Rocco, and Austin Bennett. The actors are all outstanding.
Mark Thomason’s lighting design plays an important role in the mood of the show. There are 31 scenes in 23 locations in this play, most centered in and around Seattle, created by multiple video projections on three large screens behind sparse set pieces that are moved around with incredible quickness by actors and stagehands. Instead of being distractions, these set changes are engagingly choreographed parts of the play. In keeping with this, there are also incredibly quick costume changes. The fast set and costume changes probably keep stage manager Gina Salerno and her crew very busy behind the scenes.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is a warm and heart-wrenching bit of stage magic, including a couple of inventive and unexpected fantasy scenes, presented by a top-notch cast and crew under Whitney’s inspired direction. Don’t miss this one. Bring your friends.
Appropriate for teenagers, probably not suitable for young children.
WHAT The Art of Racing in the Rain
WHEN 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through Mach 24
WHERE State Theater, 202 4th Ave. E., Olympia
HOW MUCH $35, senior/military $32, student/youth $20
LEARN MORE (360) 786-0151, Harlequin Productions