Move over, Ari Gold, Diane is back in town. Hollywood agents rarely get ahead by being gentle negotiators, but the fierce wheeler-dealer played by Julie White in “The Little Dog Laughed” has all the sensitivity of a tsunami. A supreme manipulator whose scorn for the industry she represents in no way compromises her adherence to its rules, White’s Diane made Douglas Carter Beane’s uneven patchwork of a comedy enjoyable regardless of its flaws at Off Broadway’s Second Stage earlier this year. Buoyed by one central recasting improvement, the play offers both more and less of the same in its move to Broadway.
Like Beane’s “As Bees in Honey Drown,” “Little Dog” is assembled around the acid-dipped caricature of a female monster in a superficial culture obsessed with fame and success. The playwright gives his diva a series of arias — monologues or near-monologues — that play like comic routines stitched not always seamlessly into the fabric of a broader, four-character narrative.
That narrative deals with Diane’s aggressive bid to bounce from agent to manager to producing partner by securing a hot film property and tailoring it for star client Mitchell (Tom Everett Scott). The process involves rescuing the project from arthouse oblivion by turning its central relationship from gay to straight. Burned by Hollywood in the past, the unseen playwright whose work is being refashioned offers resistance. But the more pressing problem is Mitchell’s sudden urge to kick down the closet door, spurred by his blossoming relationship with gay-for-pay boy Alex (Johnny Galecki).
One of Beane’s central themes is how the quest for happiness often is hijacked by external concerns, calling into question the notion that in America you can be whatever you want to be. “The only ones who can be whatever they want are white, upper-middle class, straight, conservative, Protestant men,” offers Mitchell.
Despite clear evidence of an attraction both emotional and physical, neither Mitchell nor Alex wants to acknowledge being gay. “I’m not a sex-with-guys kind of person,” stresses Mitchell. “I’m in it for the money,” says Alex, helpfully suggesting Mitchell probably falls under the category of “straight but curious.”
When the relationship takes hold, Mitchell has delusions of making it work via the usual subterfuge (“I wonder if he’d be up to pretending to be a personal assistant?”). But ultimately, only Alex has the courage to follow through.
A better physical fit for the role than his Off Broadway predecessor Neal Huff, Scott is terrific in the early scenes, in which his easygoing manner and stream of wisecracks only half cover his underlying nervousness and unfulfilled need. He’s a big, likable lug — albeit one far too verbally adroit in Beane’s quick-witted dialogue. If he’s less persuasive when the character is forced to make choices, it’s due largely to the playwright’s failure to ground the relationship between the two men in reality.
Galecki’s character is more satisfyingly developed, and the actor balances Alex’s cocky, street-smart demeanor with glimpses of an unguarded emotional rawness that make him almost an alien in this play.
The weakest link is Alex’s sort-of-girlfriend Ellen. As clever and funny as the writing is, Beane’s quip factory often functions at the expense of character development — particularly so in this case. While Zoe Lister-Jones was abrasive in the role at Second Stage, Ari Graynor seems stiff and uncomfortable as the smart-ass party girl, sucking the air out of the play whenever she’s onstage. Ellen is such an unappealing character that her intended vulnerability gets lost and it’s hard to care much about her predicament, which becomes fodder for Diane’s Machiavellian meddling.
Scott Ellis’ production has a slick, stylish look thanks to Allen Moyer’s pop-art set and the electric color palette of Donald Holder’s lighting, mixing bold primary shades with hot pastels.
But the play’s flimsiness — its nagging shallowness, inconsistency of tone and over-reliance on direct address — is exposed more harshly in the larger space and the burden placed more heavily on White’s shoulders.
Her whip-smart performance is a comic whirlwind, bristling with cool calculation, acerbic observation and a gleeful, unapologetic awareness that Diane’s needs are paramount and everyone else’s are to be compromised at will. While there seems no inherent reason for Beane to make her a lesbian, as a vehicle for the playwright’s amusing roasting of Hollywood, she’s sharp as a tack. Perhaps the real achievement is that White makes her such an ingratiating villain. But the actress has become a little screechy in the role, the urge to crank it up a notch steering her toward cartoonishness.
Given the scarcity of viable new comedies on Broadway, audiences no doubt will be tickled by the satire’s risque humor and hint of topicality. White’s rape-and-pillage comic turn and the barrage of witty zingers here might arguably be enough to justify Beane’s mainstage upgrade.