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Theater review: 'The Little Dog Laughed' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

November 24, 2008 |  1:00 pm

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Remember when dramatic works revolved around a fall from grace? When the loss of integrity and honor could consume an entire plot? Close your eyes and try to recall this prelapsarian universe, because it’s the polar opposite of the one you’ll find in “The Little Dog Laughed,” the naughty 21st century comedy of manners by Douglas Carter Beane, which makes such quaint moral attitudes seems oh, so last century.

The play, which opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, re-creates the 2006 Broadway production with Tony winner Julie White and Johnny Galecki (Darlene’s love interest on “Roseanne”) reprising their delectably unscrupulous roles. Directed by Scott Ellis with polish to spare, the piece is a puckish urban entertainment, as sleek as it is slight, which deals with subjects that let’s just say aren’t intended for the Prop 8 set.

The main setting (suavely designed by Allen Moyer) is a trendy New York hotel room occupied by Mitchell (Brian Henderson), a closeted film actor whose career is on the rise thanks to the Machiavellian ministrations of his tireless agent Diane (played by White with a fiendish comic glare that’s as direct as tanning bed rays). Drunk one night after an awards ceremony, Mitch calls in a male hustler, Alex (Galecki, buffed, geeky-cute and briefly au naturel). But instead of just getting busy, the movie star and rent boy become entranced by the fantasy of each other.

Diane, who casually informs us that she’s a lesbian during one of her high-octane monologues, doesn’t want her client attracting untoward publicity with his “recurring case of homosexuality.” She’s trying to land him a gay role in the movie version of a hot new play, which in the twisted, heavily ironic code of the biz means he can’t be gay in real life or else the film will go straight to the art house circuit — loserville for a mover and shaker like her, who’s determined to climb up the industry food chain with this project.

Little_dog_laughed3_6There’s another complication, by the name of Ellen (Zoe Lister-Jones), Alex’s gal pal, who knows all about his line of work. She’s really in no position to judge him given the way she’s unleashing the credit card of an old sugar daddy, but she’s not too happy to discover that Alex, who’s providing his premium services to her gratis, has given not just his body but also his heart to Mitch.

All four characters in “Little Dog” are in post-compromise mode. Beane, whose sprightly work includes the book for the musical “Xanadu” and the comic confection “As Bees in Honey Drown,” ups the satiric ante here by wallpapering his tale with the upside-down values of Hollywood.

Diane isn’t merely a ruthless negotiator and all-controlling guru, she a trafficker in human wishes. Her genius is in sussing out the desires of those around her, then manipulating them shamelessly. She reminds Mitch that his dream is to be the dream of everyone else. Like a Mephistopheles who shops on Melrose Place (Jeff Mahshie’s costumes are spot-on), she lures him and his entanglements with the promise of “wealth, ease, celebrity” to get them to do her diabolical bidding — in other words, put on a public charade of heterosexuality so they can all get stinking rich.

There are actually two plays in “Little Dog.” There’s the sendup of the cutthroat entertainment world — just another heartless form of prostitution — which sets out to be clever, witty and amusingly censorious. Then there’s the situation comedy that asks us to take the characters’ relationships and inner lives seriously.

Beane succeeds better with wisecracks than pathos. When Mitch, caught between the demands of stardom and intimacy, screams to Diane, “I’m fighting for my life,” it’s hard to work up much feeling for his dilemma. This is not the fault of Henderson, who plays the role of the seductive cipher with an authentic touch of loneliness. The whole cast, for that matter, is impressively synchronized in this farcical fable, but the emotional realism is ultimately only skin deep.

It’s no knock on the playwright to say that he’s a deft cartoonist who finds endless mischievous mirth in our worship of false idols and images. Not every dramatist can be Chekhov. Yet few can write such theatrically ebullient arias as those marvelously composed word-swarms spoken by Diane, whose humor in large part stems from her complete lack of moral queasiness.

Unafraid of going overboard, White performs with a gusto that, like her character, knows no bounds. She’s the architect of glamorous misery, who can’t understand why anyone in their right mind would rather be loved than envied.

--Charles McNulty

Top photo: Julie White and Brian Henderson

Bottom photo: Johnny Galecki and Zoe Lister-Jones

Credit: Ringo H. W. Chiu / For The Times

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