Hollywood-Style Comedy of Manners Bristles With Social Satire; Show Biz Clashes With True Love In “The Little Dog Laughed”
The Little Dog Laughed, Douglas Carter Beane’s 2006 Tony-nominated hit comedy, is a play about Hollywood, about truths and illusions, unbridled ambition and control. It is also about relationships, working through gender confusions, making meaningful connections, and struggling to sustain those connections. Mr. Beane is a skilled craftsman, and his play is also about language and theatrics and how humans (including writers) use that language in the pursuit of power and love and the creation of worlds, both fictional and actual. Theatre Intime’s current revival, directed by Princeton University senior Jack Moore, capitalizes on creative, intelligent, tasteful staging and four dynamic, committed performances to deliver the sharp humor and depth of human relationships here.
The four characters in The Little Dog Laughed develop a sort of love rectangle. As Diane, a high-powered Hollywood agent, explains, “My rule of thumb is that in the first act you put your people in a tree, in the second act you throw stones at them while they’re in the tree, and in the third act take them down from the tree.” At the end of the second of only two acts in The Little Dog Laughed, Diane promises the audience that she will “sort this all out,” and she proceeds to do just that.
Diane’s principal client is the rising Hollywood star Mitchell Green, whose homosexuality, though hesitant and mostly closeted, is causing public relations problems for her. Ever the consummate pragmatist, problem-solver, epitome of the Hollywood businesswoman, she warns Mitchell about his budding gay relationship undermining the new movie they are planning: “We are investing money into a property that will fill the common woman with lust and fill the common man with envy. My problem is that if you start walking around with your “friend” over there. You will not inspire lust in common women and every common man will feel superior to you.”
Meanwhile Mitchell and his rent boy Alex are developing a serious relationship, despite confusion and questioning of sexual preferences on both sides. To further complicate matters, in residence back at Alex’s apartment, where he’s been missing for five days, is his girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend, Ellen.
Theatre Intime’s undergraduate ensemble is in top form here. The actors make the most of Mr. Beane’s polished dialogue and clever plotting. The play develops its characters and moves the plot forward with a captivating counterpoint between interior monologues spoken to the audience and dynamic exchanges among the characters.
Katie Frorer as Diane presides with authority and style over the evening’s misadventures. The age stretch here is challenging — Diane is a hardened veteran of the Hollywood wars, probably twice the age of Ms. Frorer. — but this witty, cynical, charismatic woman comes across in technicolor. Despicable? Perhaps, but she is devilishly charming, funny, and devastating in her skewering of the hypocrisies and delusions of Hollywood and its denizens. From her long opening monologue through frequent asides and extended commentary to the audience, Ms. Frorer’s Diane serves as narrator and the driving force in “problem-solving” and moving the plot forward. She frequently breaks the fourth wall to engage the audience, as she seems to be supervising the writing and directing of the action.
As the closeted Hollywood star Mitchell, at the center of the clash here, Nico Krell creates a convincingly conflicted character, often self-absorbed but trying hard to find meaning and love in his unusual life amidst the demands of Hollywood stardom. The comedic Hollywood exchanges with Diane are perhaps more convincing than the romantic scenes with Alex, but Mr. Krell, also stretching to portray a character twice his age, is on target and sympathetic throughout. There are many fine scenes during the evening, moments of poignant emotion, as well as high hilarity, but Mitchell and Diane’s ingratiating themselves with a pretentious playwright over a fashionable lunch is most memorable in its razor-sharp, humorous satiric commentary — impressive evidence of these two actors’ ability to create, out of thin air, the setting, the third (invisible) character, his (silent) comments, and the whole “Hollywood” scene for the audience’s enjoyment.
As the rent boy/prostitute, Cody O’Neill’s Alex is probably the most sympathetic of the four characters — and the most vulnerable to the brutalities of the Hollywood he encounters in the personas of Mitchell and Diane. Mr. O’Neill creates an intriguing three-dimensional young character, exploring his sexuality and his life with a certain toughness and independence that the other characters do not possess. In a range of challenging scenes, Mr. O’Neill, whether communicating directly to the audience, trying to cope with his distraught girlfriend, or charting his path in the awkward relationship with Mitchell, conveys convincingly the bravura and the vulnerability of the sensitive young hustler.
Abby Melick’s Ellen establishes the fourth side of the romantic rectangle with her lingering relationship — friend? girlfriend? ex? — with Alex and plays a crucial role in Diane’s ultimate scheme. Though in some ways more of a supporting character than a protagonist, Ms. Melick’s Abby also creates a three-dimensional persona for her 24-year-old character and delivers a credible, strong stage presence, established early on in a memorable monologue about returning home to visit “Screecher,” her mother, and witnessing the horror of what has happened to her old room.
David White’s set design here vividly and economically establishes the hotel room of Mitchell and Alex at center stage, a large desk stage left for Diane’s domain, and minimal furniture for Alex’s apartment and a home base for him and Ellen stage right. Diane as narrator and master problem-solver-manipulator-director of the action frequently wanders to center stage and downstage to address the audience or engage in the action. Lighting by Michael Kim enhances both mood and creation of these locales, as it also speeds the rapid shifts from scene to scene throughout more than 20 scenes over the course of the play. Costume designs by Emma Claire Jones are realistic, appropriate, and expressive of each of these four interesting individuals.
This world of big-money Hollywood power plays and publicity, of movie stars and their rent boys, may seem rather removed from the average Princeton audience’s frame of reference, but The Little Dog Laughed successfully draws its viewers into the intriguing lives of these four characters. Skillful playwriting, intelligent staging, and dedicated, talented acting grab the audience’s attention from the start and make us laugh and care about these four characters and their lives.
Theatre Intime’s production of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” will run through February 28 at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.theatreintime.org for tickets and further information.