There is no denying that Douglas Carter Beane’s often hilarious comedy “The Little Dog Laughed” became a must-see hit when it opened Off-Broadway last season at the Second Stage. And there is no question that Julie White’s awesomely bravura performance created the kind of rapturous buzz that is reserved for very few actors in any season. Given this, there is still the question of whether the play’s subject and its treatment will be as enthusiastically received on Broadway. With its full-frontal male nudity, and a text that literally panders, although in a brilliant way, to a gay and/or showbiz savvy audience, this is a play that may have an uphill fight for success, no matter how deserving.
The consensus, however, was that the Off-Broadway production was flawed by the casting of an actor, although a fine one, who didn’t have the charismatic presence for the key role of a macho Hollywood dreamboat with a secreted homosexual life. That problem is undeniably fixed with Tom Everett Scott, now playing the role of Mitchell, whose sexual dalliances have a tendency to thwart the ambitions of Diane (White), his personal manager. Johnny Galecki remains in the role of Alex, the bi-sexual male prostitute. Another improvement in the casting is that of Ari Graynor, as Ellen, Alex naive girlfriend.
As playwright Douglas Carter Beane has already tackled the basically fraudulent surface of celebrity, its pliers and poseurs, in his caustic comedy “As Bees in Honey Drown,” he is now exploring deeper into the cover-up and the protection of it in “The Little Dog Laughed” (expanded from his one-act play “He Meaning Him”). In it, an aggressive and skillful Hollywood agent stops at nothing to keep her actor client from ruining his sky-rocketing image as a macho star by coming out of the closet.
Under Scott Ellis’ skittish direction, the play gets its main adrenalin rush from White, a hoot as Diane the motor-mouthed wheeling and dealing lesbian career manager, who will stop at nothing to secure a movie deal for her “occasionally” gay client Mitchell (Scott). This isn’t going to be easy as Mitchell is suddenly preoccupied with a relationship with Alex (Galecki), a conflicted male prostitute. In the meantime, Alex is trying to sustain an intimate relationship with Ellen (Graynor), his long-time girlfriend. Of course, the (im)perfect solution comes after everyone has had their say and their sex, and we have had plenty of time to laugh at the whole satiric charade of people forced to re-invent their lives in an industry that is all about invented lives.
This witty, acerbic quips-galore foray into the world of Hollywood sharks and the bait they feed on serves as a complementary bi-coastal bookend to Bees. The source of the title is the nursery rhyme that begins “Hey diddle diddle.” etc. The silliness of that rhyme that ends with the phrase, “The little dog laughed to see such sport, and the dish ran away with the spoon,” also informs the play with its seemingly preposterous alliances and allusions. The whole notion that gay actors should have to live straight public lives is the issue that DCB tackles with insightful elan.
White’s performance as a self-mocking manipulator remains a triumph, if it also appears now more than a bit larger than life. The entire play actually rests upon her shoulders, more specifically upon her often hilarious monologues that punctuate each scene and also serve as bridges. An almost breathless energy propels her in a power meeting with a playwright (unseen), whom she wants to alter his hit New York play about homosexual lovers into a Hollywood screenplay about heterosexual lovers. Diane’s ability to wrest control from the playwright, and deviously secure a more controlling position as a producing partner, is as frightening as is Mitchell’s almost feckless disregard for his career.
Scott, who appeared in the Drama Dept’s production of Beane’s “The Country Club” (and who moviegoers will recognize as the lead in “That Thing You Do” directed by Tom Hanks), is tall and comely but more importantly projects an ingratiating personality that appears to be a perfect fit for a young hunk. It is no stretch to think of him as cut from the same mold as those legendary A-list gays of filmdom, Rock Hudson or Tab Hunter. There remains an issue with Galecki, who, despite his quirkiness, doesn’t quite convince as a high-priced male prostitute, although his transition from a callous hustler to a guy with heart effects the most interesting dramatic turn in the plot. That is, except for a pregnancy that gives Ellen, as nicely played by the attractive and sweetly beguiling Graynor (“Brooklyn Boy”), a reason to stick around and complicate a sensitive situation. Still and all, it is only when the bitchy, bright, and bristling Diane is on stage that the play really sizzles.
The play is nicely sparked by Ellis’ direction but more significantly by White’s series of manic attacks. Set designer Allen Moyer’s gliding panels and roll-on bedroom make their own amusing statements. In the end, although the cow doesn’t jump over the moon, you may still see why The Little Dog Laughed and the rest of us just smiled. **
“The Little Dog Laughed,” Cort Theater, 138 West 48th Street. $86.25 to $96.25. 212-239-6200.
The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.