Dog and Phony Shows
No names are named in The Little Dog Laughed, a newish comedy now playing in the studio space at Addison's WaterTower Theatre. So go ahead and play fill-in-the-blank in the dilemma of a handsome Hollywood up-and-comer whose wholesome public image is at odds with his closeted personal life.
Coming out has never been the in thing in the movie industry. So it's trouble when our star, Mitchell (portrayed by beetle-browed Kyle May), goes after the leading role of a gay Romeo in the film version of a Broadway hit. In showbiz, Mitch is a meaty matinee idol. But his own private late show means getting drunk in a hotel room and doing the humpty-hump with a $200-a-trick male escort.
Enter Mitchell's hard-charging agent, Diane (Marisa Diotalevi). Actually, she enters first in this quip-dripping play by Douglas Carter Beane. In the manner of so many modern works for the stage, this character speaks directly to the audience all through the thing. Others gab at us too. The dramatic "fourth wall" used to stand between actor and audience. Now it's been relocated somewhere behind the back row.
Lesbian Diane is in a pickle in Little Dog Laughed. As she describes it, Mitch is "suffering from a slight, recurring case of homosexuality." Only straight actors win awards for playing gay characters, she says. If Mitch doesn't watch out, he'll wreck the deal she's doing with the hit show's openly gay playwright—unseen and spoken of only as "he, meaning him." Diane's cagey about her love life too, letting the press and public believe she and Mitch are together. Better to be thought a client-seducing cougar than a woman powerbroker who likes pussy.
In pitch parlance, this is Entourage meets Sweet Smell of Success, with Mitch as Vincent Chase and Diane as J.J.—in her case, Vajayjay—Hunsecker. Diane becomes star-maker or breaker when Mitch actually falls for one of the escorts, Alex (Chad Peterson), who has a girlfriend (Alicia Bullen) who just happens to be pregnant. Whoa, Nelly, all bets could be off if Diane doesn't formulate a quick fix.
Little Dog Laughed is a hot, fresh-from-Broadway sparkler getting a not-so-hot local premiere in WaterTower's new "Discover Series." The problem isn't the play, though like its lead character it does try to have it both ways. Beane presumes his audience will be both smart enough to get the endless insider references and forgiving enough to excuse the bits that treat us like idiots. It really is such hokum to have Diane tell the audience to take a 15-minute break for intermission and then for her to welcome us back with a quick recap of the exposition.
The juice in this and Beane's other lapsed-morality play, As Bees in Honey Drown, comes from his been-there-heard-that ear for dialogue. Little Dog brims with conversational gems, like Diane's description of Mitch as "Huckleberry Finn on a raft made out of rent boys." Astute comparisons are drawn between the sand mandalas painted by Tibetan monks and the complicated assemblage of Cobb salads ordered by studio execs. Beane tosses in allusions to The Wizard of Oz (a rule of plays about gay men, apparently). The title hints at how things will turn out. "Hey, diddle, diddle," the nursery rhyme begins. It's the one with the fiddling cat, the jumping cow and the little dog laughing at the runaway dish and spoon.
In WaterTower's jittery staging, it's left to us to decide who the beasties or utensils are in a fable about the foibles of two self-hating princes and one foulmouthed fairy godmother. But it shouldn't be that way. The letdown is that only one member of the cast, Marisa Diotalevi as Diane, appears to understand the play fully. Even her performance is muted, turned down to half power to keep from blowing three weaker actors off the stage. What could be a tour de force for Diotalevi, a wonderful comedian, is merely a tour de pffft.
She gets no support from Kyle May as the conflicted Mitch. May has the pecs but not the chops to carry off a role that calls for a drunk scene, a nude boy-boy smooch fest and an angry confrontation. Like a soap actor asked to act Molière, he's way out of his element.
Playing the boy toy, Chad Peterson slips into the same vocal and physical rhythms as May, making Alex and Mitch twin bimbos. Only when he's talking to the audience does Peterson relax and touch the raw emotions the role asks for.
Ruining the part of Alex's gal pal Ellen, who's supposed to be almost as quick-witted as Diane, is Alicia Bullen. She speed-spews lines in a chipmunk-y squeak. Not a word she utters is audible from the fifth row of a five-row house.
Weak direction by James Paul Lemons is to blame for a lot of this. He's paced the scenes badly and blocked actors to stand nose to nose, forcing their profiles. A king-sized bed rolled out center stage on Terry Martin's set design sends actors waltzing around it or perching awkwardly on its edge. Lighting by Leann Ellis leaves shadows that swallow faces stage left and right.
In more ways than that, the actors of Little Dog Laughed remain in the dark.
Next time a character in a play turns to the audience and asks a question, let's do this: Answer back.
If playwrights insist on employing the tiresome gimmick of direct address, we need to rebel by not sitting quietly when they get in our faces. The temptation to speak up is almost irresistible in Edward Albee's 2001 drama The Play About the Baby, now onstage in an area premiere by WingSpan Theatre Company at the Bath House Cultural Center.
When the character named Man looked out at the crowd during the first act and asked, "Do you believe any of this?," my inner hater so wanted to shout, "No! Can I go home now?"
Albee's pulling one over on us this time. He's taken the brilliant complexity of his own masterpiece, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and broken it down to simple absurdity. An unmarried older couple named Man and Woman (played by man and wife actors Bill Jenkins and Linda Leonard) invade the happy Eden of Boy and Girl (Joel McDonald, Jennifer Youle) shortly after the birth of the young couple's baby. Gradually, the elders ruin the idyllic marriage of the youngsters with suggestions of infidelity. Then they take their baby. If there was a baby. Which maybe there wasn't.
Albee and his invisible offspring. Yawn. He's done it so many times—replaying the alienation from unfeeling adoptive parents, some say—that he should be over it by now. We certainly are.
He never stops with the braying monologues. He has a favorite phrase—"Oh, what a wangled teb we weave"—that Man and Woman say over and over. Characters deliver so many solo speeches full of crude jokes and weird repetition, the only option for the listener, other than scrambling for the exit in the dark, is to ignore the windy riffs and let the mind wander. Or, in WingSpan's production, let the eyes settle on Ms. Leonard's heaving bosoms, spilling out of a low-cut red dress and starring in a pleasantly distracting show of their own.
In an inverse situation to WaterTower's miscast quartet in Little Dog Laughed, WingSpan's four actors (six if you include the cleavage) are far better than the play they're in. Technically, vocally, emotionally, physically, they invest too much of their considerable talent in Albee's empty script. The staging by director Susan Sargeant in the Bath House's tiny arena—dressed out as a playpen by designer Wade Giampa—makes brilliant use of actors and space. She's serving pabulum on fine bone china.
And do we believe any of it? No, baby, not a word.
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