Santa Monica’s venerable Morgan-Wixson Theatre begins its 64th season with arguably its boldest choice ever, The Little Dog Laughed, Douglas Carter Beane’s hilarious, biting Hollywood-New York showbiz satire. It’s not every community theater that will take a chance on a love story between a gay movie star and a bisexual hustler, featuring a lesbian agent, R-rated language, brief full frontal male nudity, and plenty of same-sex smooching.  Fortunately for L.A. theatergoers in search of cutting-edge entertainment, the Morgan-Wixson has taken just such a chance, the result of which is a brilliantly written, well acted and directed, and funny slash conversation-provoking evening of theater.

The Little Dog Laughed makes one thing perfectly clear.  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. No wonder the play’s movie star hero is disconcerted (to say the least) when he finds himself falling in love with another man.

But first, a step back in time.  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. Maybe 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.”

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 slender young thing 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 likely to do the same at the Morgan Wixson, assuming the theater can get the word out to the sophisticated theatergoers (and the Hollywood and LGBT communities) which made The Little Dog Laughed such a hit at the Kirk Douglas last fall.

There is much serious (and cynical) commentary about Tinseltown 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. The cast assembled by the show’s very capable director Sherry Coon get most of them already, and are likely to score even more bull’s-eyes as their performances gel over the next month.

In taking on the role of Diane, recent Colorado-to-Los Angeles transplant Denise Carole has one of the toughest acts ever to follow, Julie White’s Tony-winning tour de force.  The lovely, statuesque Carole creates a Diane quite her own, and one worth seeing. Whereas White had clearly sold her soul to the Hollywood devil, Carole’s Diane still retains a bit of hers, making this Hollywood agent unexpectedly likeable even when wheeling and dealing with the cutthroat best of them.  Beane has given Diane some of the best lines ever written for an actress.  Carole, a cross between Sandra Bullock and Allison Janney, sinks her teeth into every delicious one of them, and if she doesn’t achieve the homerun White hit (can anyone?), she makes it quite handily to third base with home plate in sight.

Louis Trent and Michael Taber do very good work as movie star Mitchell and rent boy Alex. Trent successfully conveys the conflicting emotions of an on-the-the rise film star faced with a choice between career success and personal happiness. The actor has a Vin Diesel quality that adds credibility, and the talent to make Mitchell’s Act 2 breakdown the evening’s most powerful moment.  Taber has a sweet, almost waif-like quality that makes his Alex instantly sympathetic despite his choice of the world’s oldest profession. That, and the very nice chemistry between the two male leads, places the audience squarely in Alex’s corner from his first appearance. Ashley Gianni completes the cast in believably self-absorbed fashion as Alex’s girlfriend Ellen.

William Wilday’s set design and lighting design reflect the budgetary limitations of community theater, but hey, ticket prices top at $18, and Beane’s play doesn’t require design pyrotechnics. Director Coon doubles as costume designer, her choices are a nice fit for each character. Sound designer Bill Pracar’s music choices have a great 1960s Henry Mancini-Frank De Vol quality, though a few a few sound effect cues were a bit off on opening night.

The Little Dog Laughed is one of my absolute favorite plays of the past few years, and one I hope to have the chance to see again and again. It’s a real coup for the Morgan-Wixson to be the first L.A. area theater to be staging it from the ground up, and the results achieved are commendable.  Like the little dog himself, you too will likely laugh to see such (Hollywood) sport, and have a thoroughly good time doing so.

Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica.

–Steven Stanley
September 19, 2009

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