The Little Dog Laughed | Stray Dog Theatre

StrayDogLaughed 75Playwright Beane’s sense of detail and his penchant for the exactly right trope is uncanny.

StrayDogLaughed 500

It may be cold outside, but things heat up quickly inside the Abbey with Stray Dog Theatre’s presentation of Douglas Carter Beane’s hilarious satire of the movie business. Sarajane Alverson is in her element as Diane, a hard-nosed, foul-mouthed agent with an eye for the ladies. She introduces us to one of her clients, Mitchell (Bradley J. Behrman), an actor on the brink of Hollywood stardom but hampered by a touch of homosexuality. The two are in New York to negotiate a deal to buy the rights to a current, highly respected play as a star vehicle for Mitchell.

But first, Diane explains it all to us. Who these people are and what they are. She has an arsenal of gay slurs that would add to Karen Walker’s repertoire. She also has great clothes, mostly in black and white but is memorable in red for dress-up or for the occasional accessory. She wears no other colors, so she is characterized as hard driving, uncompromising, and passionate by her outfits, including sky-high heels and bright red (of course) hair and lipstick. Completely unencumbered by a moral compass, she is reminiscent of how Melanie Griffith described herself in ‘Working Girl’: A woman with “a head for business and a bod for sin.” But while Diane tells us she’s a lesbian, we don’t see her in a relationship. Mitchell finds a lover though, and thereupon hangs our tale.

The night before a scheduled meeting with the playwright Diane is courting, California-based Mitchell is in his New York City hotel room when a young man arrives looking for his “uncle.” After a moment of confusion, we realize that he is a prostitute booked through an agency by Mitchell. Alex (Paul Cereghino) seems like a nice guy, and he insists he isn’t gay himself, but that having sex with men is his “job.” He has a girlfriend, he says, and in a manner of speaking, he does. Ellen (Paige Hackworth) is a friend from high school (public, hers; private, his—a distinction she draws to give us a better sense of Alex’s background) which wasn’t long ago. However, Ellen expresses premature ennui, saying there’s no hope in their lives anymore because they are, after all, already 24. It is difficult to say exactly what their ambitions are or were though, since she’s been living off a sugar daddy who recently dumped her but didn’t take his credit card and shopping ensues. In fact, the two do have a somewhat unenthusiastic physical relationship, and theirs is the only consummated sex scene.

Mitchell is shy with Alex and admits he only called because he was drunk. He pays Alex anyway, and before leaving, Alex gives Mitchell his cell phone number. Mitchell says he won’t use it, but no one believes that and the two tentatively embark on an affair that is both sweet and passionate. Diane walks in on them and has a fit. Her biggest fear is that Mitchell will be outed and never taken seriously as a heterosexual leading man again. To complicate matters, the script she’s chasing is a love story between two men, which she plans to change though she assures the playwright that she will not tamper with his plot.

More gay men are being accepted as romantic partners for women on screen, though, and certainly straight men can play gay roles; in fact, they pursue them because that way lies Oscar, the most desired naked guy in Tinseltown. However, this slight aura of datedness doesn’t interfere one bit with the fact that this is a laugh-out-loud-often funny show. The performances are terrific, especially Alverson’s and Behrman’s. Cereghino is a believable and sympathetic Alex, but he could use some work on enunciation and his mind seemed to wander a time or two, but maybe that’s intentional. New kid Hackworth seemed self-conscious early on, rather “actory,” but she was much better in the second act, so overall, they make up an excellent ensemble.

The set is very pretty. I wondered how Stray Dog would handle its demands, since I remember it as being rather elaborate, but director Gary F. Bell has fit it into his space perfectly. Soliloquies and the occasional dialogue are performed on a second level where sliding doors and Tyler Duenow’s lights are used to direct us to the speakers. On the stage floor, a bed, a couple of paintings and a chair represent a posh hotel room, and it looks good. Only one prop is ever even moved on and off the set, so the performance flows with minimal distractions.

Playwright Beane’s sense of detail and his penchant for the exactly right trope is uncanny. For example, he compares a Cobb salad, the quintessential Hollywood lunch, even allegedly invented at the Brown Derby restaurant, to a mandala. It is beautiful and carefully composed, but quickly destroyed and eliminated. Act II bogs down a bit with a plot point that is not a surprise but does seem a rather convenient device to advance the action. However, this event does allow a deeper exploration of the cost of fame, who will pay it and who will not and to what lengths they will go. At exactly the right moment, Diane sweeps in, a “Diva ex Machina,” to straighten out a seemingly impossible situation.

Timing is everything with Diane’s character and Alverson nails it, as does Behrman with Mitchell’s confusion, Cereghino with Alex’s essential goodness despite childhood trauma and Hackworth’s vulnerable, maybe slightly underwritten Ellen. She seems to be the character the playwright understands the least, but she has her moments. Bell has directed in fine style, and I hope everyone takes advantage of the opportunity to inject some levity into this long, cold winter by seeing ‘The Little Dog Laughed.’

‘The Little Dog Laughed’ is at Stray Dog Theatre through February 22, 2014. You may contact straydogtheatre.org. | Andrea Braun

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