The Little Dog Laughed—written by Douglas Carter Beane and staged by Good Medicine Theatre Company at the Onyx Theatre until September 6—is one of those plays whose title tries too hard. I mean, “Laughed” is there—the play’s a riot—but to put your play under the aegis of a buried line in a nursery rhyme that’s apocryphally about the intrigues at the court of Queen Elizabeth? The good news is that the characters and jokes in this whip-smart production are a lot more accessible than the deliberately obscure yet telling title.
Without giving too much away, the play revolves around Diane (Tressa Bern), an up-and-coming lesbian Hollywood agent, and her work partnership with Mitchell Green (Onyx and Insurgo impresario John Beane), an up-and-coming Hollywood actor who suffers from periodic bouts of homosexuality. Both think this is the absolute worst thing that could happen to their drive toward the top—after all, Americans don’t like a gay action hero.
Unfortunately, their shared desire for fame at any cost is derailed when Mitchell falls in love with Alex (Alex Bayless), a gay hustler whom Mitchell drunkenly brings to his hotel room one night. Alex returns the sentiment, but has to deal with his longtime girlfriend, Ellen (Zoey D’Arienzo). And, of course, because it wouldn’t be a drama without, well, drama, Mitchell and Diane have just closed a deal to buy the hottest play in NYC and turn it into a major motion picture, but the author of the play has his own ideas about how that’s supposed to happen.
The script is tight, fast and funny, and is only backstage enough that both people who are in the entertainment industry and those who just read Entertainment Weekly can appreciate the comedy. The character of Diane, the cynical, sharky agent, is a familiar trope, but coupled with some very self-observant and biting humor, along with some priceless comedic details, is made into a larger-than-life force. It’s easy to lose sight of the character behind her one-liners (after the playwright asks only for “her word” that she’ll treat his play with respect: “You’re asking a whore for her cherry”), but there’s something more Machiavellian, and yet possibly human and sweet, going on with her.
Bern does a bang-up job letting the character get cartoonish, letting her fulfill all our assumptions of how evil she should be, so that whenever she comments spitefully on the action, it does fill us with doubt—are the worms of jealousy and conniving really there in Mitchell and Alex’s relationship? Or does she put them there to further her own ends? Is this cynicism an act for effect, or is she speaking the truth? And if she’s speaking the truth, how does that damage—or strengthen—other characters’ relationships? While the humor is immediately apparent, its deeper intent is not, but it is there. Bern has a tremendous role to work with, and she makes the most of it in a hysterical yet nuanced portrayal.
For their part, Beane and Bayless’ work as budding lovers Mitchell and Alex is sweet but a little halting. Beane is sharp when onstage with Bern, perhaps because his character is also a recognizable type (their scene convincing the playwright to sell them his script is fantastically great), but less sure when his character is supposed to be opening up to Alex. Yes, these scenes are supposed to be a little hesitant because the characters are unsure of themselves, but the actors shouldn’t be wobbly at all. D’Arienzo is solid as Ellen, managing to convey the deep affection she has for Alex, along with a certain ruthlessness that struggles to accept his sudden happiness.
But the script is the true star here. Each scene unfolds a few more emotional intrigues and power struggles, and as each character chimes in to narrate their view of the action, motivations become blurred. Thanks to the great job of the cast, you care for the characters and want to believe the best of them—but you just know that something has to break. In the end, what gets broken, and remade, is not what you think. It’s not exactly a surprise ending, but it’s not a one-note ending either. Redemption and cynicism turn out to be closer than you may think.
The bottom line: ****
Through September 6, Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., $15. Onyx Theatre, 953 E. Sahara Ave., 732-7225.