Judging by the waves of laughter cascading over the four-person cast of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” at the Kirk Douglas, no one appreciates a joke more than its butt. Reuniting actors and designers from its 2006-07 successive Off Broadway and Main Stem engagements, helmer Scott Ellis hones their talons razor-sharp for the current occasion. Beane’s satire of artists’ capacity for self-deception (while constructing charades for the public) cuts the community to the quick, and the community responds with hilarity.The object of everyone’s affection is up-and-coming star Mitchell Green (Brian Henderson), trajectory impeded only by what agent Diane (Julie White, reprising her Tony-winning role) calls “a slight recurring case of homosexuality.” Henderson, who understudied Broadway’s Tom Everett Scott, superbly captures the boy-next-door macho from which alcohol, or conscience, periodically releases an anxious hint of mint. Though Mitchell’s sexuality is a matter of insider suspicion for now, his foot keeps nudging that closet door ajar — which isn’t unhelpful in negotiating rights to a same-sexer play sure to catapult thesp to the A-list and Diane to the exalted stature of producing partner. (Its waspish scribe is identified only as “he meaning him,” reflecting overt respect but secret contempt for wordsmiths. “A writer with final cut?” Diane screams. “I’d rather pass out firearms to small children.”) Mostly, though, Mitchell is smitten with Manhattan rent boy Alex (erstwhile “Roseanne” co-star Johnny Galecki, smashing in this role), whose slick street smarts are but flimsy camouflage for an intense need to love and be loved. The lad has a g.f., party girl Ellen (Zoe Lister-Jones), for cryin’ out loud. Could his liberation from paid roleplay — specialty “Uncle Steve’s out-of-town nephew” — actually come from another man? And could Mitchell’s career stand the strain? Expertly steered by Ellis through shoals of fear, mistrust and misunderstanding, Henderson and Galecki infuse “The Little Dog Laughed” with emotional variety and depth hitherto unknown in a Beane work. Henderson veers from blurted feelings to stubborn refusals to name them, sparking in Galecki that aching realization when one’s happiness hinges on a gesture the other partner isn’t prepared to make. As events come to a head — no pun intended — White inhabits super-fixer Diane, half-mama/half-monster, as if to the manner born. Self-deprecating hand gestures and ceaseless smile belie the teeth-grinding truths she gaily transmits to powerful and powerless alike. Direct address, a tired convention in other hands, becomes Beane’s inspired means of deconstructing the agent persona: Won over by so much flattery and charm, we (like those on stage) never see the low blows coming. Party girl Ellen is the recipient of many a Diane low blow, and it’s not the sharp Lister-Jones’ fault that celebrity’s fringe was already fully anatomized in Beane’s earlier “As Bees in Honey Drown,” nor that while everyone else is granted distinctive rhythms and syntax, she’s left to sound like Diane Lite. Her part’s a less-than-convincing plot device, but it doesn’t slow down a production stunningly designed by Allen Moyer with tiny details expressing full environments (vinyl chairs and a Formica-topped table for a cold-water flat; a grassy centerpiece for a trendy bistro). Donald Holder’s lights evoke glamour while hinting at the dark underbelly of the showbiz dream, and Jeff Mahshie’s costumes are perfectly chosen. But when all is said and done it’s White one remembers, slicing and dicing like a Benihana chef with reputations on his cutting board. Thesp miraculously makes many things happen at once: A sudden drop to basso profundo turns the mere words “Seven years” (“Almost half your life,” she goes on to trill at dear Alex) into a reminder of how much hinges on their quest for the gold — a spear aimed squarely at Mitchell’s gut, and landing. Diane is ripe for caricature, but by keeping her desperation in view while wielding her Excalibur wit, White remains heartbreakingly real and hilariously true.
Kirk Douglas Theater; 317 seats; $65 top
A Center Theater Group presentation of a play in two acts by Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by Scott Ellis.
Sets, Allen Moyer; costumes, Jeff Mahshie; lighting, Donald Holder; original music and sound, Lewis Flinn; sound design, Cricket S. Myers; production stage manager, Gregory T. Livoti. Opened, reviewed Nov. 23, 2008. Runs through Dec. 21. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.
Diane - Julie White Alex - Johnny Galecki Mitchell - Brian Henderson Ellen - Zoe Lister-Jones