The emergence of a celebrity or “public persona” is not happenstance. It’s a business. Carefully created by unseen hands, these fabricated images are built to influence or sway, and that is code for “built to deceive.” Politics doesn’t have the lock on the craft (or even a very convincing one); Hollywood perfected the process long ago. The only thing that has changed is the players.
Douglas Carter Beane’s clever little exposé, “The Little Dog Laughed” tells the story of Mitchell (Jimmy Johansmeyer), a Hollywood boy-next-door type on the verge on breaking into true stardom. The issue that threatens is his long secreted homosexuality. The incessant knocking from the closet door is proving a vexing problem for his aggressive agent and friend Diane (Melissa McLeod Herion). And just as the perfect film project starts to jell for Mitchell (and Diane), Mitchell falls for New York rent boy Alex (Justin Rugg). Tensions become unbearable as Mitchell begins to want to be seen in public with his new ‘friend.’ Additionally complicating matters is Alex’s “girlfriend” Ellen (Ruth Kennedy). A high-maintenance, club kid who has recently broken up with her sugar daddy Arthur, she finds herself pregnant — by Alex.
’The Little Dog Laughed’
WHERE: Theater Barn, Route 20, New Lebanon
WHEN: Through Sept. 23
HOW MUCH: $24-$22
MORE INFO:518-794-8989 or www.theaterbarn.com
Mitchell thinks he wants Alex, Alex thinks he wants Mitchell, Ellen is jealous of Alex and Mitchell, and Diane needs them all to be happy so she can get the right table at Spago. This sounds like superficial soap opera, but Beane’s clever pen has written so much more than that.
Full of insightful social observations and sly, sometimes alarming satire, the playwright’s biting wit tickles as it zaps. Laying bare the machinations behind the creation of celebrity and the sublimation of emotional wants to achieve a business goal, Beane takes no prisoners, skewering all, sparing none. While Marlowe may have introduced or popularized “will you sell your soul to see that you get want you want?” theme, “The Little Dog Laughed” prods it with a modern twist. Beane’s characters have no issue or moral conflict about selling their soul, the quibble is the price. And as galling as that may seem, what is horrifying is the play’s final “punch” doesn’t truly surprise us anymore. We expect it and accept it — and that’s the biggest and saddest scare of all.
More a modern mix of an unaware Mephistopheles in Faust’s clothing (wrapped here in faux couture and tasteful paste), the aggressive and ever-pleasing Diane is a role that every actress of a certain age is dying to sink her teeth into and Herion chomps down hard and doesn’t let go. In a powerhouse performance, Herion completely occupies every high-heeled inch of the “agent from hell” spinning Diane’s web of deceit, lies and empty pointless agendas with ease and grace. Allowing us to be repulsed, attracted and ultimately seduced by her art of the deal, Herion seamlessly makes a morally bankrupt character sympathetic, and that is no simple task. Credit Beane for the creation, but credit Herion for a perfect realization — she excels on every level.
The character of Mitchell is a little bit of a cipher. Craving the fame, but aware that coming out will kill his career, Mitchell’s conflict is an internal puzzle. But Johansmeyer doesn’t seem very interested in finding out a solution. Instead of being tortured or perplexed by Mitchell’s growing disillusionment in living a lie, the actor offers up an air of detachment and ennui. There is little apparent want from a character who is an opportunist looking constantly to fill a void.
The same may be true of Kennedy’s approach to Ellen. The youthful flip of a party girl is well played and funny. Even the delicate moment where Ellen’s crisis brings reflection, then realization, of a truth she wishes to bury, is well handled. But what is sadly muddled and obscured is the moment when she makes the choice to embrace the fraud as her fate, and more importantly, a clue to why. But maybe we are not supposed to know.
Rugg has the hardest role emotionally and has success. He may be missing some of Alex’s edge, but the heart is true and that closes the deal with the play’s final moments.
As good as these actors are (and the whole production is), Beane’s insight and warning is the reason to grab a ticket. The play will shock, titillate and force a lively discussion. Not to be missed.