The Little Dog Laughed
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 7, 2006
I am very glad that Douglas Carter Beane's new play The Little Dog Laughed is a hit. It's one of the most important plays of the season, I think, as well as one of the most entertaining. It is ostensibly about what Beane calls the last taboo—being gay in Hollywood (and in this sense it's kind of like the anti-Take Me Out, the shameful truth rebutting Richard Greenberg's grotesque fantasia). But it's really about us, and our post-1984 polity and world. Funny, sure; and a little bit scary.
At the center of the play is a movie star named Mitchell. He's an up-and-comer, but he's not quite there yet: a big, important film is what he needs to propel him into the rarefied universe of Tom Cruises and Johnny Depps. And his agent—supportive-to-the-point-of-suffocating Diane—has found the property, a serious and critically-acclaimed New York play. Problem one, that the play is heavily gay-themed, is easily fixed, in rounds of arduous negotiations whose result will be the wresting of artistic control from the (bought-off) playwright. Problem two is more, well, problematic: not only is Mitchell gay, but he's actually thinking of inching out of the closet. And an openly gay actor can't star in a gay-themed film (just look at this year's crop of "progressive" movies if you don't believe me).
Mitchell is, apparently, aware of his orientation, but he's also aware that his orientation has to remain not just a secret but a thing to be constantly denied. He generally satisfies his physical needs with what Diane coyly calls "rent boys" (we Americans call them hustlers). But one particular boy—an earnest young prostitute named Alex—brings to Mitchell heretofore unfelt feelings of something akin to love. The movie star, keenly in touch with the crazy paradoxical loneliness of his situation, suddenly things he's found a helpmeet, a partner.
What the heck is Diane going to do?
The brilliance of Beane's play lies largely in the answer to that question, which I will not even hint at here. Figuring in Diane's masterful machinations, though, is the play's fourth character, Ellen, the young woman with whom Alex has heretofore been living and in love (or at least puppy love). The ending is like something out of a fairy tale, one written by Karl Rove and Louella Parsons. The sheer gall of the resolution feels almost apocalyptic, or at least it would if director Scott Ellis didn't pull some punches in the play's second act climax, pushing Little Dog away from the terrifying tragedy that it actually is and toward the glib and cynical standard of most processed American entertainment circa 2005. (Note that this is probably a very canny and deliberate choice, a decision calculated to make the piece more palatable to the masses. I'm all for it, if the masses who see this play will really think about what it actually says about us: that everything is for sale, and, worse, that nothing is "wrong" unless we name it so.)
Now, let me jump off my soapbox and say simply that its serious intentions notwithstanding, Little Dog is a hilarious, enjoyable comedy, breezily staged by Ellis and splendidly produced by Second Stage Theatre. Julie White steals the show as Diane, in a performance so calculatedly cold that any pretense to humanity is gleefully abandoned; I actually don't care for it because I think a Diane with a soul would be more interesting than the monstre sacre that White creates here, but it's a crowd-pleaser, no doubt about it.
For me, the center of the piece is Neal Huff's Mitchell, the finest performance yet from this excellent actor. Especially in the first act, when Mitchell's egoism threatens to at last be clipped by some authentic tenderness for another human being, Huff shows us a man stung by an authentic dilemma: he can have everything he ever wanted in the world, if only he didn't want to love a man. The directness of his plight, not to mention its seeming enviability, is surprisingly moving in Huff's capable hands.
Johnny Galecki (Alex) and Zoe Lister-Jones (Ellen) complete the cast. Galecki is enormously likable as Alex, while Lister-Jones plays to type as a stereotypical "party girl." But both seem a bit too old for their roles, making characters who are in their very early 20s feel like disjointed 30-year-olds. A small quibble.
See this play if you want to laugh at the expense of, well, lots of sacred cows; see it and try to figure out if there's any way out of this system that Beane has really convincingly nailed and that his leading lady Diane, as you'll see, has mastered.