The Little Dog Laughed
at the About Face Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—“The Little Dog Laughed” is a satire about wheeling and dealing in Hollywood and you know what that means—characters selling out, drenched in hypocrisy and deception and compromise. That’s nothing we haven’t seen in “Entourage” or “All About Eve,” but the comedy by Douglas Carter Beane does demonstrate how far a play can travel on the back of a single superb comic performance.
“The Little Dog Laughed” was a major off Broadway hit in 2006 but stumbled commercially in its transfer to a larger Broadway venue. This is a show that needs an intimate presentation, which makes it a fine fit for the About Face Theatre in the new Hoover/Leppen Theatre.
About Face has carved out its niche in Chicagoland theater with a repertoire grounded on gay and lesbian themes. “The Little Dog Laughed” has its gay elements, but it remains an unusually mainstream enterprise for the company. The play is actually a fast paced comedy of manners, loaded with one liners and verbal zingers. There is some homosexual lovemaking in the production, but we’ve seen more explicit activity on other Chicagoland stages. Still, viewers who resist replications of gay sex in a play should take note.
The play has only four characters visibly on stage, with several more implied. Every character, visible or invisible, is manipulated by an agent named Diane, a woman who lives for her job as a single extended and joyous power trip. Diane’s immediate problem is an actor client named Mitchell Green. She’s trying to get Mitch a plum role in the movie adaptation of a Broadway hit play but the beautiful hunk inconveniently has fallen for a young male prostitute named Alex. If Mitch is outed as gay, there goes his career and the plum movie role, and Diane won’t stand for that, not with so much status and so much money on the table.
The play runs a concise two hours, including an intermission. The narrative whizzes by in a zippy series of monologues and quick scenes, some overlapping. The first act is a little sluggish, mostly prepping the audience for the superior second act. The opening act suffers every time Diane leaves the stage. We get a heavy dose of the conflicted Mitch and Alex, both of whom are in denial that they are really gay. Even though he’s a male prostitute, Alex wants to believe he’s just doing it for the money and even boasts a ripe party girl named Ellen as a lover. Mitch mostly is an emotional muddle about where he really stands gender wise.
The play has some delicious comic set pieces, like a power lunch with the gay writer who wrote the hit Broadway play Diane has her eyes on. The scene is a classic of sucking up as Diane and Mitch bathe the invisible dramatist in phony praise, raising shallowness to a new plateau. In another priceless scene, Diane recites the contract to be signed by the playwright, a document of absurd conniving that leaves the playwright with about as many rights as an amoeba on a microscope slide.
The play ends with Diane presiding over a clever and ironic solution to the troublesome matter of concealing Mitch’s homosexuality from the public. It’s Diane’s final triumph. Diane may not endear herself to the audience for her moral rectitude, but you’ve got to love the woman for her cold-blooded ingenuity. She blithely assumes the role of problem solver to reorder the lives of three young people, maybe for better, maybe for worse, but definitely to serve the interests of the agent from Hollywood hell.
A production without a scintillating Diane would be like a production of “Hamlet” with a boring Danish prince. Fortunately for the play, and for the audience, the About Face staging offers Mary Beth Fisher as the irrepressible Diane, sublimely tossing off the agent’s slash-and-burn wit like she was born for the role. Occasionally Fisher’s delivery exceeded the speed of sound and a few of her lines buzzed past me before I could savor their divine nastiness, but it was a small price to pay for the take-no-prisoners humor built into Diane’s personality.
The other three characters revolve around Diane like pale moons around a blazing sun. Lea Coco has Mitch’s matinee idol good looks but the character is a little fuzzy, at least in this production, and I got the sense that Mitch’s confusion over his gender preferences basically resulted from the young man not being too bright. Levi Holloway made a much more complex character out of Alex, the only sympathetic person in the play and, naturally, the only one who takes a fall at the end as odd man out. Heather Prete does what she can with Ellen, who exists in the play mostly as a plot device.
Eric Rosen, in his final directorial assignment for About Face before leaving for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre artistic directorship, orchestrates the action with a proper eye to keeping the action moving smartly. Tom Burch’s set is dominated by a giant bed that’s an apt metaphor for all the sexual hi jinks embodied in the play. Janice Pytel designed the costumes and Christopher Ash designed the lighting. Mikhail Fiksel is responsible for the sound and the original music.
“The Little Dog Laughed” runs through February 17 at the Hoover/Leppen Theatre at Center on Halsted, 3656 North Halsted Street. Most performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $45. Call 866 811 4111.
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The show gets a rating of 3 ½ stars.
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