Many of our favorite stories are love stories, or at least have love stories in them -- the thrill of new relationships, the steam of lust, the warm comfort of a lifelong, mutual romance -- but relatively few novels, plays, or movies are about love. The phenomenon. The indefinable but undeniable condition that hovers invisibly somewhere between the genitals and the brain. The priority that slides up and down one's personal list like a shredder's fingertips on the neck of the guitar.
In Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed, there are, yes, numerous screamingly funny and insightful references to the entertainment industry and its entirely hypocritical and symbiotic relationship with the rest of American culture and, yes, male full frontal nudity, in case you need to know that kind of thing ahead of time. But you could take all of that admittedly super-fun stuff away and you'd still have a universally meaningful story about love. (One that's recommended for mature audiences.)
Mitchell (played with brilliant dimension and subtlety by Ian Christiansen) is a film actor at a critical point in his career -- he's not a star yet, but he's just won a prestigious award, and his canny agent and friend, Diane (Patti Davis Suarez), has determined that the next step is to attach him to the film version of a blockbuster play in which he'll play a man in love with another man. Life being the hysterically twisted thing it is, this will only work if everyone believes that Mitchell is, in his personal life, heterosexual. Which, it's becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to deny, he isn't.
If a person's romantic life is mostly about sex, it's a relatively straightforward and manageable thing. But what happens when, at the most inopportune time in your life, you realize you can feel love? And what if your love is a hustler (complete with girlfriend) who never really thought about it either? Suddenly all kinds of crap like integrity and honor and being yourself are complicating the wishes and dreams of a carload of people whose business, ideally, none of this should be. Suddenly the compromises of art mirror the compromises of life, and the happiness of the ending depends whom you ask.
For me, that's what the play's about, and I'm glad. Art transitions seamlessly into activism when it shows that we're all alike and we're all different, that both those things are true and both are lies. (Plus I'm a big old goopy romantic.)
As far as Nearly Naked Theatre's production of the play's Valley première, directed by Damon Dering, it's just about everything one could hope for. The acting is believable and touching while the humor is bitchy and goofy, which is quite a simultaneous achievement.
The scenes in which Mitchell and Alex (Owen Virgin) get to know one another are exactly as fraught with joy, doubt, and insecurity as the ones we've all played in real life. Patti Davis Suarez, as Diane, carries the bulk of the script's narration that's delivered directly to the audience. Oddly, I found her character more convincing in those solo passages than when she was interacting with the ensemble. Even in the group scenes, though, she was entirely composed, charming, and forceful, as Diane needs to be.
Virgin ("Gee," murmured my companion, "ya think that might be a pseudonym?") strikes a difficult and necessary balance in his portrayal of Alex, who's young, attractive, and somehow street-smart, candid, unsophisticated, modest, and noble by turns. Though it would be impossible to literally see more of this young actor than I have, I look forward to seeing more of him.
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If Laura Anne Kenney, as Alex's girlfriend Ellen, merely held her own in this sea of flamboyancy, she'd deserve kudos, but she's a better actress than that. Beane's dialog, so very literate and wordy, trips off her tongue as though Ellen had been crafted in Heaven as the perfect "party girl (a.k.a. gold-digger)" -- someone you can have a nice conversation with after the shopping and the cuisine and the unspeakable acts. I'd also like to thank Kenney's parents' gene pool and costume designer Emily Rubin for simply letting a beautiful young woman look really good on stage. Sociopolitically, I wish it didn't mean anything, but damn, we don't get to see it enough.
David J. Castellano's set does a simple thing very well: The large bed in Mitchell's upscale hotel room looks like the real thing, floating almost like a life raft in a sea of theatrical blackness. There are useful flexible areas for other scenes, and ugly, but appropriate, fake plants to balance the picture.
Tickets to this show are going fast, fast, fast. You'll have a better chance of getting in this weekend than next week, so try to squeeze it in between leftovers, decorating, and shopping. You'll be glad.
The Little Dog Laughed continues through Saturday, December 5, at the Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road. Tickets are $25; order here, or call 602-254-2151 for student/senior/military discounts or more info.