The Little Dog Laughed
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 15, 2006
The Little Dog Laughed is about a rising movie star named Mitchell who is poised to star in his breakthrough role if: (a) his agent can secure the rights to the play in which this role appears; (b) his agent can manipulate the author of that play to change it from a love story between two men to a love story between a man and a woman; and (c) Mitchell himself doesn't accidentally "out" himself by taking things too far with the young man he thinks he might be falling in love with.
The superficial themes of this satire by Douglas Carter Beane feel timely, or at least timely-ish: the notion that a gay love story could never be made in Hollywood has been debunked by Brokeback Mountain, although the question of whether it could be made without obviously heterosexual leading men (which is raised in Little Dog) remains very much open; and certainly the issue of whether an "out" gay actor could become a major movie star in America is worth exploring. But you'll notice that I've dubbed these themes superficial because that's precisely what they are: The Little Dog Laughed gets most of its fuel from its central character, who is not Mitchell the gay movie star but Diane the lesbian über-agent (and the fact that she's lesbian is almost entirely incidental, except to remind us of the depth of her apparent self-loathing). In other words, what's mostly being satirized in this play is the soulless, egocentric, power-hungry, anything-for-a-deal mentality that characterizes much of America's corporate climate and that we associate particularly with Hollywood (and always have: it's been 60 years or more since Fred Allen said "If you took all the sincerity in Hollywood and put it in the navel of a fruit fly, you'd still have room for three caraway seeds and a producer's heart.")
Diane, who is played broadly, brashly, coarsely, and with superb comic timing by Julie White in a crowd- and critic-pleasing performance, gets all the play's great lines—stuff about how long it takes producers and agents to order Cobb salads and how hypocritical and money-driven just about EVERYBODY is and how "He Being Him" (her Seinfeldian nickname for the playwright from whom she's wresting control of Mitchell's upcoming breakthrough movie) is a whore, a wimp, and—alas—now that she's got her mitts on him, screwed. Beane pitches Diane's dialogue unerringly to his in-the-know audience and Little Dog generally feels very funny indeed.
But he's also given her a lot of anti-gay epithets, which might be true to her character as written; but how much more wonderful might it have been if Diane actually had a little character, by which I mean that I'd prefer to spend time with her if she weren't so readily and entirely a sellout, but instead still had a heart bigger than the proverbial fruit fly's navel. White suggests the Diane that might have been in a couple of moments where Little Dog stops yapping at its targets and pauses for some more humane reflection. We catch glimpses of a truly important play about a woman who finds herself forced to do the wrong thing in order to do the right thing for her client and her own economic well-being. Now that play, had Beane chosen to write it, could have been really interesting.
But we are stuck with what he did write, and it's a compromised script in a still-more compromised production. (I make this latter claim with assurance, having seen the superior mounting earlier this year off-Broadway at Second Stage.) White's co-star here is Tom Everett Scott, who isn't young enough or hunky enough to make us believe in Mitchell's situation. He's also not comfortable enough in his scenes with Johnny Galecki (who plays, Alex, the 24-year-old hustler who is Mitchell's boyfriend) to convince us that he's gay; and, in a weirdly satisfying ironic twist, he's not even famous enough to affect the box office in any appreciable way, which at least would have justified his (mis)casting. When Neal Huff played Mitchell off-Broadway, he showed us what was at stake for Mitchell in the play's storyline; Scott is a cipher throughout, and the poignancy and desperation of a man who has everything as long as he never tells anybody who he loves is consequently absent.
The Second Stage production has otherwise been transferred to the Cort Theatre pretty much intact, with Allen Moyer's stylish, sleek sets sliding on and offstage niftily (though the symbolic mobile that physicalizes the idea in the show's title is far off in the rafters, rendered meaningless and foolish by sheer distance). Jeff Mashie's costumes, especially Julie White's smashing gowns, are also still on view. Ari Graynor is now the fourth member of the cast, as Alex's erstwhile girlfriend; she comes across as a Julie White-in-training.
The Little Dog Laughed has some useful things to say about the way the world works these days, but not very much that's new: it's clever rather than smart, which means that its shelf-life is probably not going to be all that long. It didn't have to be this way—as I left the theatre I kept wondering how much of what's onstage at the Cort is the result of shrewd calculations and compromises precisely like the ones at the center of this devilish but ultimately tame comedy.