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Summers at Performance Network in recent years have brought area theatergoers a tasty serving of critically-acclaimed hits fresh from Broadway. The fact that each featured storylines and characters that challenged some patrons’ comfort zones only sweetened the season for those of us who enjoy an occasional night of edgy, thought-provoking theater.
This year’s tender morsel, “The Little Dog Laughed,” certainly continues that trend – if the buzz swirling around the theater’s lobby during intermission and immediately following the opening night performance is any indication. Because while a few patrons were obviously uncomfortable with the play’s subject matter and (brief) full-frontal male nudity, playwright Douglas Carter Beane and director Ray Schultz should be thrilled with its outcome: The conversations it sparked were not only animated, but passionate – which is exactly the type of lively chat good theater SHOULD stimulate!
In Beane’s timely tale, a handsome and seemingly straight Hollywood rising star is set to appear in the lead role of a new movie in which he would “play gay.” The problem, though, is Mitchell Green’s habit of purchasing the services of male prostitutes whenever he’s had too much to drink, which might be problematic for moviegoers who prefer to watch star-power heterosexuals play cinematic homosexuals. So when Mitchell begins tiptoeing out of the celluloid closet with Alex, a sweet and adorable rent boy with whom he’s fallen in love, his longtime agent Diane takes control of the situation and offers her client, his lover and the pushed-aside girlfriend the perfect solution to their predicament – which SHOULD make everyone happy. But are they?
Ostensibly, “Little Dog” is a story about Hollywood hypocrisy – and in particular, its schizophrenic treatment of gay actors. (You’re here, you’re queer, we’re used to it – but keep it stuffed in the closet if you’re a bankable leading man in straight love stories or action flicks.) Upon closer examination, however, Beane’s script is about self-deception and living a falsehood. (Both men initially deny they’re gay – even to one another. Mitchell only admits to occasional drunken dalliances with men, while Alex only has sex with men to pay the bills. And party girl Ellen is comfortable with having a popular male hooker as a boyfriend.) But digging deeper, Beane explores personal integrity, ethics and morality in a world awash with conflicting rules and demands, and asks: At what price will a person sell their soul to attain their dreams?
That’s the $10,000 question the playwright ultimately answers in this 21st-century comedy of manners – with sparkling dialogue and razor-sharp wit.
And it’s dazzlingly delivered by a production blessed with an impressive multi-media set by Monika Essen, rapid-fire staging and four actors who wear their roles exceptionally well.
Barton Bund, in possibly his best performance yet, skillfully maneuvers Mitchell through a roller coaster of emotions and life-altering situations. The shallow and self-absorbed movie star is faced with two conflicting realities: his quickly blossoming romance and the necessity to maintain a certain public image for the sake of his career – and Bund is equally believable as the suave, do-whatever-it-takes Hollywood up-and-comer as he is the nervous lover who risks all for the man he loves.
As the play’s moral center (which is somewhat ironic, when you think about it), Jacob Hodgson fills Alex with puppy dog eyes, an inviting smile and an open, honest heart that’s usually not associated with his character’s profession.
When they’re together, it becomes crystal clear why their attraction is mutual, immediate, comfortable and powerful. However, their fast-developing relationship also reveals one of the script’s few flaws. (It brings to mind the punch line of a once-popular joke within the gay community: What do lesbians do on a second date? Rent a U-Haul.) The compressed time-frame is just not believable.
Chelsea Sadler captures Ellen’s party-girl persona, but grounds it with compassion.
But if Alex is the heart and soul of the production, then Diane is its devil-in-expensive-women’s-clothing – and Roxanne Wellington blasts hell’s doors wide open with her wickedly delightful portrayal. As Mitchell’s manipulative agent, not only does she have the juiciest lines, she’s also the shark with the biggest bite in showbiz – and Wellington nails every monologue she delivers and steals every scene she’s in.
‘The Little Dog Laughed’
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Through July 27. Tickets: $25-$37. For information: 734-663-0681 or http://www.performancenetwork.org.