Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union called it quits. For the creators of the musical two-hander Space Dogs that probably felt like enough of an historical buffer to take a funny look back at our Cold-War adversary. But, as contemporary world events demonstrate, the edges of history usually are less clear than they seem. That doesn’t mean we don’t all occasionally need a good cathartic laugh in the face of unfathomable horror; it’s just that this emotional release usually comes from the type of wit and wisdom that Space Dogs isn’t intended to provide.
Co-written and co-performed by Van Hughes and Nick Blaemire, the musical revels in its own silliness as it takes a whacked-out-kid’s-show approach to recounting the origins of the Soviet space program. With cutesy-wootsy energy to spare, Hughes and Blaemire focus, in particular, on the relationship between the officially nameless Russian rocket engineer plucked from the gulag to lead the Soviet trek to the stars and Laika, the ill-fated canine occupant of Sputnik 2, the first spacecraft to orbit the Earth with a living being inside. Sadly, and much to the chagrin of dog-lovers everywhere, the 1957 mission never included a plan for Laika’s return trip.
Hughes and Blaemire are an inventive, charismatic duo who throw everything at the audience (sometimes literally) to hold our attention, as if we’re a bunch of finicky toddlers. In addition to a plethora of plush toys used to anthropomorphize Laika and the other right-stuff mongrels the Soviets callously launched to the heavens, we’re also inundated with gigantic puppetry, pretend news feeds, a falling cosmonaut dummy, a disco ball, and countless other sight gags. All the while, Hughes and Blaemire bounce around Wilson Chin’s overstuffed set with supposedly charming abandon. But, unfortunately, their hyperactive, fourth-wall-breaking shenanigans quickly grow tiresome, to the point that you may want a juice-box break.
It’s aurally, however, where Space Dogs really falls flat, with Hughes and Blaemire amateurishly careening on guitar and keyboard through a generic rock score that only choppily advances the story of the Russian rocket engineer and Laika. There are also lots of musical detours sending-up 1950s America. Apparently, we’re supposed to be delighted, but by what? A lack of melody? Hackneyed lyrics? Despite Hughes and Blaemire’s enviable pep and obvious passion for the subject matter, it’s just not enough to make us forget how forgettable their songs are.
Director Ellie Heyman mostly gives into Hughes and Blaemire’s feverish nonsense, correctly realizing that the true enemy of Space Dogs is audience reflection. But, for some reason, she lets them take a meta break to assert that we’re, in fact, watching a history lesson, even permitting the onstage appearance of a whiteboard. That’s a huge tonal mistake as Hughes and Blaemire suddenly start telling us about Stalinist atrocities, which, of course, makes us think about current Russian military ones. Fair or not, Space Dogs simply can’t handle the weight of those thoughts.
Hughes and Blaemire’s didacticism is also undercut by getting the history wrong. At one point, the Russian rocket engineer and a colleague fret about Stalin sending them back to the gulag if the first Sputnik satellite had failed to reach orbit. That’s some extraordinary paranoia considering that, in 1957, Stalin already had been dead for a few years. In their own cheekily anticipated defense, Hughes and Blaemire mention all of their research comes from Wikipedia, but that’s a lazy joke meant as a cover for some lazier writing.
Aiding that effort, Heyman and the rest of the production team quickly turn Space Dogs into an exercise of quantity over quality. More lights. More noise. More projections. More props. It’s theater as sensory overload, with success measured by distraction. The major problem is that it also leads to a lot of other annoyances, with Nathan Leigh’s sound design doing nothing for the intelligibility of Hughes and Blaemire’s lyrics, Mary Ellen Stebbins’ concert lighting occasionally blinding the audience in MCC’s small off-Broadway space, and Stefania Bulbarella’s numerous projections just stoking the meaningless hurly-burly.
Still, if you squint hard enough, there are the faint traces of a fascinating absurdist play in Space Dogs that you can barely make out whenever the story focuses squarely on the relationship between the Russian rocket engineer and Laika. Hughes portrays the former while Blaemire voices the latter and, bad Russian accents notwithstanding, there’s something touching about the inner turmoil they express in monologues and to each other. On the one hand, there is the pride of participating in a great technological leap forward. On the other hand, success meant death for them both: Laika on Sputnik 2 and the Russian rocket engineer, eventually revealed to be Sergei Korolev, from health problems that began in the gulag and deteriorated because of the unrelenting pressures of the Soviet space program. It’s too bad Hughes and Blaemire couldn’t sustain their interest in these much more resonant, and not-at-all silly, paradoxes.
Space Dogs (extended through March 20, 2022)
The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater, 511 West 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-727-7722 or visit http://www.mcctheater.org
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes without an intermission