'The Little Dog Laughed' Also Snarls

Written by Douglas Carter Beane; directed by Paul Melone; scenic design by Eric Levenson; costume design by Gail Astrid Buckley; lighting design by Jeff Adelberg; sound design by Benjamin Emerson

Cast in order of appearance:
Diane, Maureen Keiller; Mitchell, Robert Serrell; Alex, Jonathan Orsini; Ellen, Angie Jepson

Performances: Now through February 16, SpeakEasy Stage Company, The Virginia Wimberly Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston
Box Office: 617-933-8600 or www.BostonTheatreScene.com

Hey, diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

In his Tony-nominated dark comedy The Little Dog Laughed, playwright Douglas Carter Beane gives a jolting twist to the innocuous nursery rhyme from which he borrows his title. His fractured fairytale of a romance between Hollywood hunk Mitchell (Robert Serrell) and male prostitute Alex (Jonathan Orsini) is chewed up and mauled by a Pit Bull of an agent named Diane (Maureen Keiller) who'll do just about anything to keep her biggest star from imploding by coming out about his homosexuality. Diane manipulates screenwriters, producers, Mitch, Alex, and Alex's sometime girlfriend Ellen (Angie Jepson) in order to make everyone else's life imitate her idea of art. In the end, her laugh is not one of benign puppy dog amusement. It's one of attack dog self-satisfaction and derision.

Beane's penchant for creating larger-than-life, high-powered, sharp-tongued, dominating women (Diane is not unlike the conniving Alexa Vere de Vere in his Off-Broadway hit As Bees in Honey Drown) sets an expectation for delicious dish and rapid-fire repartee. Too often Beane derails his own comic juggernaut, however, relying on momentum-killing narrative monologues that could easily have been written as dynamic scenes. Because both Diane and Alex repeatedly tell us about their encounters with Mitch and their feelings toward him, we don't get much of a chance to see the complexities in his character. As a result, Mitch comes across as a shallow, self-centered, insensitive user instead of the "funny, smart, well read, nice, centered, but just-enough-damaged-goods-to-be-interesting" kind of guy Alex says he is.

The Little Dog Laughed – and the SpeakEasy cast – are at their best when Beane unleashes his interactive barbs full throttle. When Diane breaks in on Mitch and Alex in flagrante delicto, Keiller snaps out one sarcastic zinger after another. Later, when she and Mitch are having a power lunch with a playwright whose script they are trying to option for a movie, Keiller and Serrell perfectly express Beane's industry-bashing bravura. With masterful comic timing, they expertly bounce back and forth between smarmy Hollywood butt kissing and scathing inner asides through which they let us in on their truly acrimonious thoughts and feelings. More of this genuinely clever dialog and less of the clichéd Lifetime Television examination of Mitch and Alex's "confused" sexual orientation would propel the action and make this comedy much more engaging.

So would a sharper and more consistently manic edge on Keiller's Diane. Caustic enough in scenes where she gets to play off the energy of her co-stars, she is less so when forced to drive the narrative through her character's self-indulgent soliloquies. Instead of barking out comic invectives like a Rottweiller on steroids, Keiller at times displays the cool demeanor of someone who chooses chamomile over espresso. We don't see enough of the tightly wound drum beneath the fast-talking exterior. We want to know what drives this single-minded woman (whom Beane has made a lesbian for no apparent reason) to cajole, control, and manipulate her way into creating the ending she deems suitable for Mitch's movie – and his life. Because Beane leaves gaps in the writing of Diane's story, the burden is on the actress to convey her angst through her essence.

Mitch's character as written and performed is a bit sketchy, too. Instead of a charismatic screen star whose "I'm not gay, I just sleep with guys occasionally" defenses slowly melt in the warmth of Alex's undemanding love for him, Serrell is a bit of a cold fish. We never quite understand what Alex sees in him. A few moments of promising romanticism aside, he's never much more than a moody, selfish prig.

The embraceable characters in The Little Dog Laughed are the common folk, Alex and Ellen. As the street-hardened but still sensitive "rent boy" as Diane calls him, Orsini is just laconic enough to show the wear and tear of his life as a prostitute but also wistful enough to hold out hope for something better. He is the most obviously damaged of all the characters in the play, but also the most morally centered and sympathetic. If he, too, is in denial about his sexuality until he becomes more to Mitch than a mere trick, he at least is willing to be honest about his feelings and to express genuine remorse about the effect his newly discovered orientation has on his friend and frequent sex partner Ellen.

As Ellen, Angie Jepson is a sputtering delight. The only member of the cast who handles her narratives with an airy, natural ease, she moves from a tough-talking party girl who shamelessly maxes out her friend Arthur's credit cards while sleeping with Alex to a vulnerable third wheel whose life has suddenly changed because the rules she and Alex have been playing by no longer apply.

The Little Dog Laughed has some truly funny moments delivered by a competent and appealing SpeakEasy cast. Unfortunately, Beane's relentless wavering between rabid comedy and inert narrative results in performances that are inconsistent, as well. In the end, this little dog's bark is worse than its bite.

PHOTOS (by Mike Lovett): Robert Serrell as Mitch and Maureen Keiller as Diane; Jonathan Orsini as Alex, Maureen Keiller and Robert Serrell; Angie Jepson as Ellen and Jonathan Orsini


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