Diversionary Theatre’s production of The Little Dog Laughed makes several things perfectly clear.  First, that despite the out, proud, and successful-as-ever Neil Patrick Harrises and T.R. Knights et al, the closet is alive and well in Hollywood.  Second, that Douglas Carter Beane’s comedy may be the funniest Broadway show yet about gay movie stars, lesbian agents, and bisexual hustlers. Third, and the best news of all for San Diego audiences, Diversionary’s cast of four locally-based actors stands up very nicely to their Broadway counterparts, thank you very much.

Beane’s outrageously funny comedy would seem to have taken for its inspiration Best Supporting Actor Kevin Spacey’s emotional acceptance speech at the 2000 Oscars. Perhaps you remember when Spacey turned to his (female) +1 and declared before all the world, “Dianne, thank you for teaching me about caring about the right things, and I love you.” (Insert fingers into mouth.)

Perhaps not coincidentally, The Little Dog Laughed is narrated by a ballsy, sardonic lesbian talent agent named Diane. Following a hilarious, biting riff on Breakfast At Tiffany’s, which sets the mood for the evening’s trenchant humor, Diane recounts an uncannily similar incident in which her client, “a rising young movie star who suffers from a slight … recurring case of homosexuality,” not only accepts an award almost word-for-word as Spacey did his Oscar, but then actually goes down into the audience, “presents his award to me, holds me in his masculine arms, and kisses me full on the lips!”

Cut to a Manhattan hotel where said movie star, Mitchell Green, is welcoming his nephew into his luxury suite. Actually, the comely young man has only introduced himself to Mitchell as his nephew.  It turns out the movie star had told the operator at Manhattan Schoolboys that yes, he wanted “a scene” (thinking that was “some sort of cool slang for a good time”) and the “scene” this Schoolboy had in mind was “I’m your nephew. Stuck in the city. I need a place to crash.  There’s only one bed.”

Yes, Mitchell has indeed ordered in tonight, a particularly scrumptious meal named Bryan (with a “y”).  Not that he does this often.  Maybe once before, twice …, fifteen times?  After all, what else is a handsome young movie star with a reputation to uphold supposed to do when his every move is noted by Hollywood paparazzi?

Though a very drunk Mitchell falls asleep before any hanky-panky can happen between him and Bryan, the next morning Alex (Bryan is his “nom du schtupp”) orders Mitchell a room-service breakfast and gives him his cell phone number (“You shouldn’t be calling like rent boys when you’re not sober,” he advises), but Mitchell assures Alex he won’t be using it.  “I mean this number.  I won’t use this number.  I mean this was an experiment for me,” he protests.

As if…

Following a second night spent sleeping together in the same hotel room (but actually just sleeping together, side by side, fully clothed), the chemistry Mitchell and Alex have been feeling proves too much to resist, and before you can say “not-quite-gratuitous-and-very-brief flashes of nudity,” tongues have tangled and clothes have been ripped off … and who should show up unannounced but, you guessed it, Diane!

As Mitchell and Alex’s lust (and feelings) for each other grow, Diane finds herself not only having to deal with her client’s inching his way out of the closet (he actually wants to go see a play with Alex—in public!) but also getting a movie made of said play—which happens to be a gay love story—all the while maintaining the myth of Mitchell’s heterosexuality.  (“If a perceived straight actor plays a gay role,” Diane tells Mitchell, “it’s noble.  It’s a stretch. If an actor with a ‘friend’ plays a gay role, it’s not acting, it’s bragging.”)

Will Mitchell and Alex be able to publicly declare their love for each other before the final curtain? Will “He Meaning Him,” the writer of the gay play Mitchell wants to star in, be able to prevent Hollywood from heterosexualizing his script?  And what about Alex’s kept-girl shopaholic girlfriend Ellen? How will she feel when she learns that her boyfriend is turning gay on her, especially now that she has her own little secret to reveal?

These are the questions that kept Broadway audiences on the edge of their seats when not falling out of them with laughter, and are now doing the same at the Diversionary in a production that’s sure to be a major hit for the 3rd oldest continuously producing LGBT theater in the country.

There is much serious (and cynical) commentary about Hollywood and the closet in The Little Dog Laughed, and quite a sweet love story as well, but with Beane writing the lines, you’re never more than ten seconds from the next laugh, especially with a cast as splendid as the one assembled here under the crackerjack direction of Robert Barry Fleming, who never lets them miss a comic beat.

In taking on the role of Diane, recent New York-to-San Diego transplant Karson St. John has one of the toughest acts ever to follow.  Julie White won a Tony for the role and repeated it in L.A., where I saw and marveled at her brilliance.  I felt much the same way this past Saturday as I marveled at St. John’s absolutely dazzling performance.  Comparisons are unnecessary.  St. John makes the part her own, and has the audience in the palm of her hand from the moment she begins the play anecdotally recalling Mickey Rooney’s “unspeakable” appearance in Breakfast At Tiffany’s “in full-on novelty Hirohito glasses and buck teeth. And we can never recover!” St. John hits so many notes in her quicksilver performance that it must span at least an octave or two. Hollywood agents beware.  In St. John’s Diane, you’ve met your match.

St. John’s costars do equally fine work. As Mitchell, Brian Mackey has the deep resonant voice of a movie star, and is so real, so “in the moment” in the part that if Mitchell is anywhere near as excellent an actor as Mackey, no wonder he’s in demand.  Bryan Bertone (coincidentally with a “y) has the same off-center charm, sweetness, and vulnerability that Johnny Galecki brought to Alex in New York and L.A. (without imitating the original), plus a good deal more sex appeal, in this reviewer’s humble opinion. Finally, Kelly Iversen’s Ellen is so deadpan funny and darkly, deliciously cute that she deserves a play written all about her—and wouldn’t Ellen love that!

L.A.’s production at the Kirk Douglas had a set by original Broadway designer Allen Moyer that did all sorts of a amazing things.  Jungah Han’s Diversionary set may not provoke the same oohs and aahs, but it’s great-looking and classy and serves the very same purpose without pricey moving parts.  Chris Renda’s lighting design works in tandem with Han’s set to move us from hotel suite to office to restaurant to airplane without a lost moment.  George Ye’s sound design (cell phones, Moon River, and much more) and David Medina’s props are both first-rate. Jennifer Brawn Gittings has once again whipped up a bevy of great costumes, from Alex’s grungy t-shirts and jeans, to Mitchell’s slacks and button-down shirts, to Ellen’s edgy, trendy outfits, to Diane’s gorgeous awards ceremony-ready strapless gown and her many lesbian chic business suits.

Once again, a drive down to San Diego has proven well worth the mileage. Those who missed The Little Dog Laughed in New York or L.A. need not worry.  The laughs are all there, the performances are gems, and you’ll be a whole lot closer to the action.  Just like the little dog, you’re going to laugh to see such sport… and then laugh some more..

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
May 9, 2009
                                                                                 Photos: Ken Jacques Photography

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