Having skewered the dishonest superficiality of fame in his most successful play, “As Bees in Honey Drown,” Douglas Carter Beane’s satiric gaze turns again to celebrity deception in “The Little Dog Laughed.” Expanded from a one-act, this comedy about a gay Hollywood actor inching out of the closet while his unscrupulous agent maneuvers to keep the door bolted is enlivened by a ferocious, funny turn from Julie White as the agent, and by the playwright’s facility with a well-honed quip. But laughs aside, its chaotic structure, glib tone and surfeit of tangential padding underline that something is missing.
With “Brokeback Mountain” amplifying discussion of gay screen representation and with increasingly open speculation about A-list actors fabricating relationships to mask their homosexuality, Beane’s play seems ideally timed to tap into the zeitgeist of same-sex politics in Hollywood. In sketching the conflicted paths of two men falling in love while continuing to tell themselves they’re just “hanging out,” the writer touches some poignant chords about self-denial and twisted priorities in the pursuit of success.
Rather than aiming for an incisive, under-the-skin examination of how little things have changed since Rock Hudson canoodled with Doris Day, Beane opts instead for an amusing yet obvious slice-and-dice of the phoniness and moral bankruptcy of the entertainment industry. Sure, his digs at the creative compromises of Hollywood are witty and snappily timed in director Scott Ellis’ tight, stylishly pop-minimalist production. But they feel a little too pat and familiar to elevate the comedy from a mild diversion into an entertainment with something to say about the myth of be-who-you-wanna-be America.
The original playlet, “He Meaning Him” (seen in 2004 as part of “The Downtown Plays” at the inaugural Tribeca Theater Festival), survives as the act-one centerpiece and remains among the extended work’s sharpest scenes. In it, brittle lesbian agent Diane (White) and her rising-star client Mitchell (Neal Huff) take an unseen New York playwright to lunch in a successful bid to overcome his reluctance to sell film rights to his hit play. Burned by past Hollywood experiences, the scribe naively insists on Diane’s “word” that the story will remain about the relationship between two men. Her wise-ass asides to the audience indicate what her promise “as an entertainment industry professional” is worth.
Using a lazy device to parallel his characters’ outer and inner agendas, Beane stuffs the play with direct-address dialogue, particularly from Diane, with fussy digressions about sand mandalas, the perfect Cobb salad and Audrey Hepburn.
The agent opens the play by lamenting how the glamour and magic of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” are shattered by the arrival of Mickey Rooney’s grotesque Japanese caricature. “It’s too late,” she says. “The beginning has been irrevocably ruined.” To an extent, the same holds for Beane’s uneven play. It’s to White’s credit that even after lurching into an awkward monologue that plays like a Kathy Griffin standup routine about awards acceptance speeches, the actress goes on to create a real, not entirely unsympathetic character out of the fork-tongued manipulatrix, whose professional hunger has consumed any shred of personal life.
Angling to springboard from agent to manager to producing partner, Diane negotiates to secure the property, shepherd it through legal and then sap its integrity in the interests of fashioning a more commercial vehicle for her star.
The agent’s plans are threatened when Mitchell drunk-dials a hustler service and meets gay-for-pay Alex (Johnny Galecki). Mitchell passes out before sex, but despite his initial impulse to empty the guy’s wallet and leave, Alex is intrigued enough to stick around. Much to Diane’s irritation, a kind of relationship develops, albeit one that both men refuse to define. “Maybe I’ll be a famous actor with a ‘friend,’ ” suggests Mitchell. “Are you British? Are you knighted? If not, shut up,” fumes Diane.
When Ellen (Zoe Lister-Jones), the girlfriend Alex dumped for Mitchell, reveals she’s pregnant, the situation gets more complicated, with Diane swooping in like a hawk to perform damage control.
While Huff is personable and charming, balancing droll humor with vulnerability in his take on a man torn between career goals and emotional fulfillment, his character offers few surprises. He’s an actor, after all, so in Beane’s smugly sardonic view, his ultimate choice is never in doubt for long.
Galecki supplies a far more affecting thread, his cocky opportunist caught entirely off-guard by his feelings for Mitchell. Alex’s transition from slickly detached rent-boy to someone experiencing love, dealing with his sexuality and trembling with the need to declare himself is nicely played by Galecki with an unforced intensity that gives the play some heart.
Had the other characters been explored with comparable depth by Beane, the comedy might have felt less disposable. As written — and as played by Lister-Jones — Ellen, in particular, is such an abrasive vessel of supercilious attitude that it’s hard to feel anything when her hard edges are tempered.
That shortage of emotional nuance in the writing makes White’s achievement all the more laudable as she almost imperceptibly exposes the armored soul in a grade-A bitch.