In Los Angeles, morality flies fast and loose and no human exists who doesn’t want something from you, or so John Patrick Shanley’s 4 Dogs and a Bone sets out to prove. The quick and brutal dry comedy centers around the production of a single film, and four of its most important participants, with four 2-person scenes in two acts that allow each of the characters time together. Bradley, the producer, is in dire straits. With an open ulcer festering on his rear end, and a picture on the brink of financial collapse, Bradley is doing what he must to keep all their heads above water. He’s invited the film’s new hopeful star, Brenda, out for drinks to ply her with praise and get her opinion on what needs to be done. Brenda, who downplays many of the strong connections she seems to have in the industry, is nonetheless ruthless in her desire for stardom. She and Bradley devise a solution in which the entire role played by her fellow actress Collette is cut down to almost nothing, and the concluding twist of the film is reversed to give her character the exit she believes will put her name on the A-list and make the film a hit. Bradley, who makes his loathing for Collette’s performance clear, pleads with Brenda to convince Victor, the writer, and the man she’s sleeping with, to make the cuts. Later, Victor and Collette find themselves alone in a bar, and Victor, who is undergoing an artistic crisis because he knows his vision for the movie isn’t sustainable, continues to drink copiously and bemoan his situation to an unsympathetic but quick-thinking Collette. Through an alcohol-infused night, Collette manages to convince Victor to make the same changes to the film and its ending that Brenda had proposed to Bradley, only in a way that highlights her character instead of Brenda’s. She knows these changes will give the film the marketability it needs while keeping her from descending to a future as a character actress.
Once Act Two begins, and Brenda and Collette face off in their trailer, the conflict of interest in these two offered solutions comes to a head. By the time Bradley and Victor meet to finalize the conversation, the chaotic nature of narcissistic self-interest has taken hold and it’s unclear whether any of these four will come out of this with their desires met, or with a film at all. Shanley’s play has the feel of a speedy farce with the acidic wit known to be one of his trademarks, and the effect overall is a dizzying slap in the face with the egomania of Hollywood. Moral consequences have no consideration in a world where a morning of bad weather can lose a film $15,000 and initiate a rewrite of the whole script. In an industry that lives larger than life on every level, each minute is worth an hour and each chance at being noticed is worth the sacrifice of humility. Human compassion and empathetic consideration become afterthoughts as the dogs ravenous for recognition and fame fight over any scrap thrown to them in this eat-or-be-eaten world.