The Little Dog Laughed is a smart, sophisticated satire about a gay Hollywood actor who wants to come out, but who is pressured by his flamboyant and high-powered lesbian agent to stay in. It's also about the relationship this actor has with a young New York hustler, and about the woman this hustler has been intermittently sleeping with. Douglas Carter Beane's play is scathingly original, fearlessly explicit — it includes full male nudity — and about as wise about Hollywood cynicism as anything I've come across since I read Theresa Rebeck's Free Fire Zone. It's also the occasion for two wonderful performances: Julie Rowe as super-cynical agent Diane, and Nick Horan as ambivalent prostitute Alex. The play is very funny, very in-the-know, and focused on an area of Hollywood anthropology ignored by other Lotusland dramas like Hurlyburly and Speed-the-Plow. Author Beane is a formidable writer, whose wit is as sharp as any other contemporary playwright's. Even if you're not interested in gay mores among the glitterati, you'll find lots to admire in this ever-eloquent comedy.
There are four characters in Little Dog: Mitchell, an up-and-coming film actor; Diane, his agent; Alex, his call-boy-turned-love-interest; and Ellen, Alex's girlfriend. When the play begins, Diane tells us about her client who "suffers from a slight ... recurring case of homosexuality" which she tries, for the sake of his career (and her 10 percent) to keep under wraps. But then we meet Mitchell, her client, who's entertaining the young prostitute he minutes earlier ordered from an escort service. Mitchell is drunk when Alex arrives, and Alex sees the assignation as an opportunity to steal more than the $200 flat fee he usually receives. But the unthinkable happens: Mitchell and Alex fall in love. If agent Diane can tolerate her young star's occasional one-night stands, she's not about to countenance a full-fledged relationship that might get into the papers. Furthermore, Diane is trying to convince a certain playwright to turn his hit play — also about a gay couple — into a movie with Mitch as one of the lovers. She knows that the spectacle of a straight man playing a homosexual will sell tickets (one thinks of Sean Penn in Milk), but that a gay man playing a gay man is box office disaster. So she does her best to interfere with Mitchell's new liaison, a project that becomes increasingly difficult as Mitchell becomes increasingly smitten. And finally there's Ellen, the woman that bisexual Alex has been sleeping with, and whose sincerity and neediness make a nice counterpoint to Diane's utter guile. What Ellen wants, in her low-key way, is not to lose Alex. The cross-purposes of all these characters make for some fascinating scenes, including an act one shocker and a virtuoso finale in which everyone has a riveting part. Can love trump ambition? Will innocence shame experience? Beane's answer is scorching — and very, very credible.
Making it all work are two actors who offer splendid performances. As Diane, Julie Rowe is delightfully excessive, inhabiting a personality somewhere between Joan Rivers and Cruella De Vil. But if her performance is dazzling, actor Nick Horan as hustler Alex has a harder assignment: to convince us that he's turning tricks just for the money, that he's happy with Ellen, that he's happier with Mitchell. Horan, who's a USF theater student, does this and more: he's so persuasive as Alex, I can't imagine that he's merely acting. As Mitchell, Matt Lunsford isn't quite as consistent: he overplays his character's anguish, and only really fits the part at moments of calm. And Mary Jordan as Ellen is nicely affecting, but much too dreary: if this sad sack is supposed to have a claim on Alex's affections, we can't help but wonder why. Karla Hartley's direction is, as usual, emotionally intelligent, and Scott Cooper's set, featuring paintings of skyscrapers bending elastically over New York City, is wonderfully evocative. Stageworks shows usually offer top work in design, and this one is no exception.
Anyway, this is a special play. It's as cynical as agent Diane, as tender as poor Ellen, and as full of conflict as Mitchell and Alex. So why aren't more gay Hollywood actors out of the closet? See this canny, inventive show and — while you're laughing — find out.