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There will be more than just a little dog laughing at Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre this summer, thanks to Douglas Carter Beane’s 2007 Tony Award-nominated comedy that opened in previews June 19. “It’s a very literate script,” explained Ray Schultz, director of “The Little Dog Laughed,” prior to a recent rehearsal. “It’s got some absolutely terrific language in it. And I think it’s got some really serious things for people to think about in terms of celebrity and how the obsession with celebrity has infiltrated our culture.”
The show also features themes that, in recent years, have become popular in the summertime slot at the Network. “If you were pitching it as a Hollywood movie, one of the cast members described it as ‘Brokeback Mountain’ meets ‘The Devil Wears Prada,'” Schultz laughed.
And with good reason. The plot centers on a young, up-and-coming actor whose “slight recurring case of homosexuality” could derail a promising film career – an option his stylish, yet shark-like agent feverishly works to prevent. “She’s a very driven character who will stop at basically nothing to prevent him from doing the right thing,” Schultz said.
A male prostitute serves as the play’s conscience. “So there you go,” joked Barton Bund, who plays the closeted actor. “That’s the ethical compass.”
Not so surprisingly, controversy was unleashed earlier this year when the play was staged by Chicago’s About Face Theatre, one of the country’s most respected gay theaters – but not for the expected reason. “There is (male) nudity in the play,” Schultz acknowledged, “but for some reason they decided not to do (the nudity), and (the playwright) was very upset because he really feels that the nudity is integral to the play – and, indeed, I agree. So we are doing it true to the text. It’s not in there gratuitously; there’s a reason for it.”
Bund – who bares all along with actor Jacob Hodgson – concurs. “Pick another play if you don’t want to do (the nudity). It belongs. We’re not shying away from it.”
But will the audience?
In previous seasons, a vocal minority of Network subscribers and theatergoers has made it clear that nudity and plays with gay themes are not to their liking. But so far, the phones have been silent on the issue. However, theater executive David Wolber suspects that might change once people actually see the show. “There IS some content that in some ways may push people’s buttons a little bit more than ‘Take Me Out’ did,” the artistic director said. And it is not necessarily because of the nudity.
If nothing else, the play’s sexy, provocative poster has generated conversation in front of the theater and around town – although a few local businesses refused to display it. “It was clear that they weren’t comfortable putting it up and having people see two shirtless guys, which is a little bizarre,” Wolber said.
Far less uncomfortable is Bund, who finds all four of the play’s characters complex with many different sides to them. “More challenging than anything, I think, is being on stage and telling somebody you love them. That’s more challenging than taking your clothes off. It’s not a big deal, really,” he said.
Schultz, and award-winning actor who is finishing a year-long sabbatical as associate professor of theater arts at the University of Minnesota-Morris, is excited to treat Michigan audiences to one of the first regional productions of the play. But more importantly, he believes its message will have wide appeal. “If you’re going to go out and see ‘Sex and the City’ – this is the perfect sequel. It’s a really cool play.”
‘The Little Dog Laughed’
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Previews June 19-22 & 26 ($20-$28); then runs Thu.-Sun., June 27-July 27. Tickets: $25-$37. For information: 734-663-0681 or http://www.performancenetwork.org.