The Little Dog Laughed, Douglas Carter Beane’s hilarious, edgy Hollywood-New York showbiz satire, has arrived in North Hollywood with its cutting-edge love story between a gay movie star and a bisexual hustler and its much touted (albeit brief) display of full-frontal male nudity. Though one of its four performances still needs considerably sharpening, director Jon Cortez and cast are largely successful in entertaining, titillating, and maybe even coaxing a tear or two from audiences in search of comedy with a bite.

 Much has changed since The Little Dog Laughed debuted off-Broadway in 2006. Gays and lesbians can now serve openly in the military. Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, New York, and the District Of Columbia have joined Massachusetts and Vermont in legalizing same-sex marriage. The President of the United States has even endorsed marriage equality. As for Hollywood, in the past twelve months alone, TV leads Matt Bomer, Paul Iacono, Sean Maher, Jim Parsons, and Andrew Rannells have all come out and movie star Zachary Quinto has too, despite having refused to do so in a New York Times interview a mere one year before.

Still, despite major steps forward, the closet is alive and well and all too firmly ensconced in Hollywood, as recent sexual abuse allegations against John Travolta make particularly clear. No wonder, then, that The Little Dog Laughed’s movie star hero is disconcerted to say the least when he finds himself falling for another man.

But first, a step back in time. Beane’s outrageously funny comedy would seem to have taken as its inspiration Best Supporting Actor Kevin Spacey’s emotional acceptance speech at the 2000 Oscars. Maybe you remember when Spacey turned to his female escort 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 (Bernadette Birkett). Following a biting riff on Breakfast At Tiffany’s, which in the right hands 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 and, as a still flabbergasted Diane tells us, “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 (Owen Martin) has ordered in tonight, not filet mignon or steak and lobster, but a particularly scrumptious meal named Bryan (Trip Langley). 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 being his “nom du schtupp”—orders Mitchell a room-service breakfast and gives him his cell phone number, advising the hunky actor that “you shouldn’t be calling like rent boys when you’re not sober.” Mitchell assures Alex that he most definitely will not 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 for each other proves too much to resist, and before you know it, 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 (Laine Jennings)? How will she feel when she learns that Alex is turning gay on her, especially now that she has her own little secret to reveal?

There is much serious (and cynical) commentary about Tinseltown and the closet in The Little Dog Laughed, and with Beane writing the lines, you’re never more than ten seconds from the next laugh, or at least that’s how it usually is when Diane is center stage. Birkett, who’s been in Hollywood for the past thirty or so years both as a performer and as wife to George Wendt, must be more familiar than most with the reality Diane lives in. Still, to get all the laughs Beane has given the Hollywood agent, the actress playing her needs, if not the brilliant, razor-sharp, high-velocity delivery that won Julie White a Best Actress Tony, then at least something in that vicinity. Birkett does get laughs (with Beane writing the lines, how could she not?), but misses far too many with an overly languid delivery that doesn’t, thank goodness, sink her opening monolog, but does weigh it down considerably. To her credit, Birkett has Diane’s dry sense of humor and aces the agent’s fake Hollywood smile. What she needs now is to speed things up about 40%.

Thankfully, Cortez surrounds Birkett with a trio of young actors who, though they too could zip things along a bit faster at times, prove exciting discoveries to this reviewer.

Martin’s West Coast debut as Mitchell is an auspicious one. First of all, the Midwest native has the kind of (just slightly goofy) big blue-eyed handsomeness and action hero physique that make you believe he could actually be an up-and-coming movie star in the Matthew McConaughey mode. Martin’s terrific comic timing and the dramatic chops he exhibits in a key Act Two moment make him quite definitely “One To Watch.”

With his offbeat good looks, leanly muscled physique, and an extra something thrown in for good measure, Langley makes for a thoroughly winning Alex, revealing the young hustler’s goodness, sincerity, and heart, essential qualities in a character the audience needs to love in order to believe that Mitchell can love him too. As for Alex’s romantic/sexual rapport with Mitchell, whatever Martin’s and Langley’s offstage sexuality, onstage there is definite chemistry between the hot young pair.

Completing the cast as the gorgeous but self-absorbed Ellen, a standout Jennings has great fun with her character’s dry sarcasm, and so in turn does the audience. That the slender, statuesque beauty has been a model since age fourteen makes her casting (and performance) even more spot-on.

Carlo Maghirang’s hotel room set is so classy and well-appointed (by set decorator J Raul Guzman) that it informs an audience from the get-go that this will not be your standard rent-a-theater production. Josh Holt’s lighting design is first-rate too, though actors occasionally don’t “find their light” in spotlit scenes. Costume designer Roxy Ramirez has chosen just the right outfits for movie star Mitchell, rent boy Alex, and Hollywood player Diane, with a special tip of the hat to Ellen’s “moth-eaten” tops.  The production’s uncredited sound design, with its Theme from Breakfast At Tiffany’s and clever ringtones is a winner too.

Melissa Gilleece is production manager and stage manager. Dalton Salisbury and Holly Wolfstein are assistant stage managers.

The Little Dog Laughed remains one of my absolute favorite plays of the past ten years, and it is a treat to revisit it at the Secret Rose. Though pacing problems still need to be worked on, Beane’s comedy remains a crowd-pleaser with an edge, heart … and a bit of vinegar stirred into the mix.

Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Boulevard, North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
June 16, 2012

Cast Photos: Tyler Coleman

Production still:  Frank Bennington

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