Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011

Laughing with the Little Dog

Theatrical Tendencies present brilliantly composed Douglas Carter Beane Comedy

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed is a staggeringly well-balanced contemporary comedy that finds a remarkably well-executed production with Theatrical Tendencies at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center this month.

David J. Franz plays Mitchell—a rising Hollywood star struggling with his sexuality. It’s difficult to play that sort of thing without over-playing it in gasping indie movie-of-the-week style melodrama. Franz does a really good job of balancing the drama with a dazzlingly precise comic timing.

The story opens as Mitchell is in a hotel in New York having hired Alex--a male prostitute played by Nathanael Press. Press has shown a striking ability to play both comedy and drama and here, like Franz, he is able to weigh-in on a delicate balance of both. Press is given plenty to work with playing a respectable, non-junkie male prostitute who thinks of himself as being heterosexual. Things get kind of complicated when he starts having feelings for him. Things get even more complicated when Alex’s girlfriend Ellen (Karissa Lade) is thrown into the picture.

Lade is absolutely irresistible in the role of a girl without much direction in her life. She’d just been dumped by her wealthy much older boyfriend and has only a limited time left to decide what to do with her life. The credit limit on her ex-boyfriend’s credit card can only go so far and she’s kind of running out of time. Though it’s written with delicate sympathy and a profound amount of intricacy on a very subtle level, the role could easily read like a simple vapid airhead. Lade keeps a comfortable distance from superficiality in a performance that is an exceptional amount of fun to watch.

The cast is rounded-out by Allie Beckman in the role of Mitchell’s agent Diane. Her performance is impressively precise. Diane has an almost sensual desire for control and often attains it through manipulation. In the past, I’ve worked for people like this. As much as you hatte seeing them on local TV or even being in the same room as them, the truly manipulative personality is a lot of fun to watch onstage. The fact that Beckman is able to bring across the face of sheer opportunistic manipulation without making it seem at all unpleasant is a tremendous accomplishment on her part.

It is through Diane that Beane breathes some of his more esoteric comedy. A woman who acts as a talent agent, but really wants to produce films has a real passion for the minutia of Hollywood business. The Hollywood film industry has spent a great deal of time marketing the business of making films to the rest of America. Nothing sells a movie ticket quite like the idea that everybody else (or at least, everybody else in a certain demographic) is seeing a film. And so anyone interested in film has learned all the jargon . . . Beane slides through it so effortlessly. Diane compares giving final cut privileges to the Screenwriter to giving a gun to a child and everyone in the audience laughs. The remarkable thing about Beane’s script is the fact that it manages to feel extremely contemporary without all of the incessant name-dropping that is the lifeblood of the Hollywood film industry. It’s a very, very slick script.

There are aspects of it that I would like to assume aren’t that contemporary. Yes, we’ve all heard the rumors about Tom Cruise’s marriage, but in an age of Neil Ptrick Harris, would it really be all that necessary for a gay man to cover-up his homosexuality in the interest of forwarding his career? Maybe I’m a little bit naïve, I don’t know . . . and even with that fairly central conflict being kind of questionable, it fits so nicely in the center of all the action with such a brilliant sense of thematic composition that it hardly seems to matter that it might not be quite so believable.

It feels like a light comedy with bits of genuinely tragic romance so compellingly conjured by Franz and Press. It’s so completely satisfying on the surface that it’s kind of surprising that The Little Dog Laughed also has a reality beyond the superficial. There really is one hell of a lot going on here thematically. The nature of reality versus artifice, an exploration of the nature of identity in a post-modern world and so on . . . Beane seems to be saying here that history isn’t so much written by the successful as it is written by the most influential—and the most influential are the most manipulative. The masters of spin, he seems to say, not only control how history and reality are perceived—they’re also, in a way, creating reality itself. It’s a breathtakingly complex story packaged in a brilliant script that is brought to stage with striking clarity by Theatrical Tendencies.    

Theatrical Tendencies’ production of The Little Dog Laughed runs through October 22nd at the MGAC. For advance ticket reservations, call 414-755-2700 or visit Theatrical Tendencies Online. 

 

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