The Little Dog Laughed
Meta comedy about closeted Hollywood mostly convinces
Published: November 23, 2011
The Little Dog Laughed
By Douglas Carter Beane
If you’ve ever read Gawker, picked up a magazine in the supermarket while waiting at the checkout, or watched most any channel on TV besides PBS, you know that we are a culture obsessed with the sex lives of celebrities. It’s extra titillating, it seems, if we suspect those celebrities might be gay.
The Little Dog Laughed, a play by Douglas Carter Beane that had its first run in 2006, takes this predilection of ours, and Hollywood’s response to it, as its fodder. The play is dark, witty, and self-referential, and the Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production of it is a fast-paced, fun ride, if not an entirely smooth one. (Speaking of voyeurism, it does include a brave, buns-out nude scene.)
The action centers around Mitchell (Tom Burns), a Hollywood actor who “suffers from a slight recurring case of homosexuality,” as his agent Diane (Holly Pasciullo) puts it. If this were to become public knowledge it could endanger his career prospects, at least according to Diane. The production opens with some painfully bad smooth jazz (which unfortunately reappears at the end), and then the fourth wall is broken, as Diane delivers a monologue to the audience on the theme of beginnings, and how they are always beautiful. To illustrate her point, she describes the beginning of Breakfast at Tiffany’s . . . and then goes on to point out how it is ruined by the entrance of Mickey Rooney playing an Asian, badly. The monologue—in which, fleetingly, she mentions she is a lesbian—is a setup for what is to come, as well as an introduction to Pasciullo’s jaded, brilliant, manipulative Diane, who single-handedly makes the production worth the price of a ticket.
Soon we meet Mitchell; Burns’ portrayal of a well-known actor in hot pursuit of ever greater roles is an oddly naive, weak-willed one. This is perhaps an attempt to depict Mitchell as the puppet of his agent—which he is, largely—but his apparent lack of drive diminishes what is meant to be the dramatic tension at the core of the play: the clash between his career ambitions and his romantic and sexual desires. When Mitchell falls for Alex (Chris Krysztofiak), a rent boy he’s hired, their attraction is, for the most part, unconvincing. (One passionate, unconsummated sex scene is the exception.) And his torment over his sexual proclivities, which he sees as a bad habit acquired in the Boy Scouts—“the merit badge that dare not speak its name”—feels contrived.
Krysztofiak, as Mitchell’s lover, has more successful moments, though once again it is unclear why he would choose to fall for this particular john, having slept with hundreds of men (while still, somehow, considering himself straight). Alex’s friend/girlfriend Ellen (Emma Healy) has several hilarious moments in the play, however, some of them with Alex. In one scene, they “have sex” while standing some 15 feet apart, facing the audience. The entire experience is conveyed through dialogue, moaning, and heavy breathing, and it’s convincing enough to make for an uncomfortable viewing experience, while emphasizing the psychological distance between the characters.
Able direction and blocking by Steve Goldklang also keeps things dynamic. The set—a hotel room with exits on both sides—does not change for the duration of the play, but through focused lighting and the judicious use of props, small portions of the stage variously become a nightclub, an office, and a restaurant in Tribeca. Because of this simple setup, scenes often flash quickly from one to the next, movie style, which keeps the story rolling.
By the second act, it becomes clear that The Little Dog Laughed is a meta play: a play about itself. And what had seemed a lighthearted comedy begins to take a dark turn. Diane has finagled a playwright into selling the rights to his play, a romantic story about two gay men; it is to be made into a movie starring Mitchell. But gradually the movie’s plot is twisted toward more conventional ends, and so, too, is the “real-life” story the audience is witnessing. Cynicism, cloaked in the name of success, begins to take hold. And through it all Diane—the architect of the action as well as our narrator—maintains her allegiance to the system that has made her who she is: a bitchy, brave, successful woman with a negligible amount of soul remaining. “That’s how one wins,” she tells Mitchell. “By shutting up.”
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