By Jenn McKee
In Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed,” now being staged by Who Wants Cake? at Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre, a closeted movie actor named Mitchell (Vince Kelley) scoffs at the chest-thumping notion that “in America, you can be whatever you want to be.”
“Because the unspeakable truth of it is, no. The only ones who can be whatever they want are white, upper middle class, straight, conservative, Protestant men. … So if you grew up, as I did, with the whole above checklist intact, you know the world is waiting for you.”
For this reason, Mitchell plays a role off-screen as well as on – that of a talented, up-and-coming young heterosexual heartthrob. But while in New York City for an award ceremony, Mitchell hires a rent boy, Alex (Matthew Turner Shelton), to come to his hotel room. And a funny thing happens as Mitchell protests that he’s not really gay, and Alex confesses he’s straight, with a girlfriend: The two develop a level of closeness and intimacy that surprises them both.
Yet because Mitchell and his force-of-nature agent Diane (Suzan M. Jacokes) are in delicate negotiations for a film adaptation of a play about a gay relationship, and because Alex’s girlfriend-of-convenience Ellen (Crystal Rhoney) is in crisis, the three are pulled between who they actually are and who they need to be.
Though I’d seen a production of “Little Dog” before, director Joe Bailey’s slick staging provided me with a greater appreciation for the ways in which Beane’s script playfully and smartly dissects itself while also telling an intriguing story.
For example, at the play’s start, we hear Diane wax rhapsodic about the loveliness of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”‘ opening scene; and indeed, Ellen – who just lost the monetary support of an elderly British man who liked her platonic company – is a kind of darker, low-rent Holly Golightly.
In addition, later in “Little Dog,” we hear Diane grapple with the gay playwright while she dismantles his play, piece by piece, in order to make the film adaptation multiplex-friendly; similarly, she does this on a personal level when she repeatedly warns Mitchell away from Alex, insisting that Mitchell remain closeted.
And while some pretty serious questions are explored, “Little Dog” is ultimately a showcase for Beane’s sly, biting wit, and Bailey’s ensemble runs with every comic opportunity they get.
This is particularly true for Jacokes. Diane gets the lion’s share of hysterical lines, of course, but Jocokes’ priceless delivery, in many instances, makes them even funnier (no small feat). So although she suffered a couple of minor hiccups on opening night, her overall performance was terrific – show-biz embodied in one overwhelming, fearless, loud person.
Shelton, meanwhile, has the broadest emotional landscape to cover, and somehow, he makes it look effortless. Perhaps just as impressively, Rhoney made me have far more sympathy for Ellen than I’ve previously felt. During a scene in which Ellen talks about returning to her childhood home, she broke my heart and won me over for what remained of the show.
As the movie star, Kelley is polished and funny, but I wondered if his version of Mitchell would really be able to “pass” as straight in the mainstream. The stakes for Mitchell’s potential coming out are high precisely because he’s supposed to be one of Hollywood’s all-American, boy-next-door types, and Kelley’s Mitchell seems more sexually ambiguous than that, even when selling himself at a power lunch.
Michael Reeves’ set design primarily features Mitchell’s hotel room, where most of the action takes place, and Bailey uses smaller pockets of the stage for scenes that happen in other locales – a nightclub, a restaurant, Diane’s L.A. office, etc. Kelley costumes the characters well, though Shelton once had difficulty getting his pants off. (Did I mention the brief nudity?) And Bailey and Joe Plambeck’s lighting design thoughtfully sets the tone for each scene and balances the play’s funny and serious moments.
All these elements combine to ensure that not only will you think about Beane’s play long after it ends, but also that the “Little Dog” is only one of many who laughed, and laughed hard.
‘The Little Dog Laughed’
Who Wants Cake? at The Ringwald, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Saturday-Monday through Aug. 30; no performance Aug. 21. $10-$20. 248-545-5545. http://www.whowantscaketheatre.com.