Terrific performances and an outrageously funny script add up to some very good reasons to catch Underdog Theatre Company’s production of Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed despite minuses in design and staging.
Beane’s comedy is not only the most entertaining Broadway show yet about gay movie stars, lesbian agents, and bisexual hustlers, it makes it abundantly clear that despite out, proud, and successful-as-ever TV and film stars like Neil Patrick Harris, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, and T.R. Knight, the closet is alive and well in Hollywood. (In other words, don’t expect Tom or Bradley or Will or Leonardo or George or Jake or any other rumored-to-be-gay A-list Movie Star to come out any time soon.)
Beane’s 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) plus one and declared before all the world, “Dianne, thank you for teaching me about caring about the right things, and I love you.” (Yes, he actually said that!)
Perhaps not coincidentally, The Little Dog Laughed is narrated by a ballsy, sardonic lesbian talent agent named Diane (Renee Pezzotta).
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 (Matt Emert), is welcoming his nephew Bryan (Trevor LaPaglia) into his luxury suite. Actually, the hunky 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, and a particularly scrumptious meal at that. 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, it turns out, 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.
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-but-far-too-brief flashes of frontal 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 (Liana Bassior)? 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, scored The Little Dog Laughed a 2007 Best Play Tony nomination, and won Julie White the Best Leading Actress statuette for her performance in the proverbial role of a lifetime.
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 that far from the next laugh, the vast majority of which are guaranteed by the Underdog Theatre Company cast under Mike Hennessey’s capable directorial hand.
Though no one will likely surpass Tony winner White’s star turn as Diane, Pezzotta has just the right attitude, look, timing, and biting sense of humor to make the role work … and generate considerable laughter from Diane’s very first Breakfast At Tiffany’s monolog to pretty much any time the powerhouse agent is onstage.
Tall, dark, gym-buff, and handsome, Emert may well be the most convincing Mitchell of the five actors I’ve seen in the role—think Josh Duhamel crossed with Matthew Perry, the charismatic (and out) actor bringing his own life experience to the role to create a rich, riveting, three-dimensional Mitchell.
It’s hard to imagine a hotter young actor as Alex than LaPaglia, making it no wonder Mitchell would find it impossible to resist punching in Alex’s digits for a repeat visit. The Ryan Gosling lookalike starts out a tad too understated in his first scene or two (a case where bigger would prove better), but his performance keeps growing on you. Authentic and ultimately quite touching, LaPaglia makes Alex the moral center of The Little Dog Laughed.
Finally, Bassior gives Ellen a great look and a husky, sexy voice that serve the role well. Though her performance could benefit from sharper edges (and occasionally clearer enunciation), the CSUN grad’s talent and looks bode well for future roles.
If only production values and technical aspects matched these four performances.
This may well be the first production I’ve reviewed where absolutely no one receives design credit, leading me to believe that director Hennessey may be serving as jack-of-all-designs. (Besides the actors and director, the only other person credited in the program is assistant stage manager Benjamin Scuglia.) Though understandable given what must certainly be a tight budget, the result is a production that doesn’t stand up in technical/design standards to the majority of intimate stagings reviewed here.
Problematic, however, are the play’s many scenes which take place elsewhere. Actors not involved in the following scene keep entering again and again to set up a table, unfold a couple chairs, remove said table and refold said chairs, and then bring on different ones on for the next scene. Surely there must be a simpler, less intrusive, more time-efficient method of accomplishing these many changes, and one needing fewer pieces of furniture. (In any case, ax the folding chairs, which are more trouble than they are worth.)
Adding to the scene-change disruption is a production with almost no sound design (save a cell phone ring or two and climactic music that doesn’t swell nearly enough). Background music would fill the uncomfortable vacuum in which these frequent, lengthy scene changes take place, muffle footsteps on a particularly noisy floor, and tie scenes together with mood-setting tunes.
Lighting is simple but mostly quite effective, the exception being spots which shine out into the audience from above Mitchell’s hotel room. Costumes are well chosen too. Also on the plus side are $15 tickets, which is about as affordable as L.A. theater gets.
Many of the above problems are eminently fixable and will hopefully be remedied during the remaining two weeks of the run. In the meantime, Little Dog Laughed lovers and newbies alike can find much to relish in this gem of a play and in the quartet of actors who bring its roles to life.
GTC Burbank, 1111-b West Olive Avenue, Burbank.
August 11, 2013