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The Little Dog Laughed

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Who's Diane and why should you know her? Well, Diane solves problems. This is stated explicitly just before she's to tackle a particular hum-dinger, but you've learned long before hearing those words that she's your go-to gal in times of trouble. She'll do equally well for you whether you're a hotshot playwright angling for a movie deal, a closeted movie heartthrob, or even Douglas Carter Beane.

Beane, in fact, is the prime beneficiary of Diane's talents, for his new play - The Little Dog Laughed, at Second Stage - is buoyed considerably by her presence and the presence of the actress who plays her, Julie White. If not for White, The Little Dog Laughed would be a tipsy topical curiosity, a lightweight examination of sexuality, love, and the price of fame in the era of Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, and Brokeback Mountain.

But with White - sorry, Diane - on hand to solve problems and muse on the notion of beautiful beginnings (as typified by the pre-Mickey Rooney minutes of the Breakfast at Tiffany's film), Beane's play acquires a sense of clear-eyed reality it otherwise lacks. As a Hollywood agent whose primary client is "a rising young movie star who suffers from a slight recurring case of homosexuality," she must be part caring friend, part hard-edged businesswoman, and part harpy next door, three traits White easily fashions into a single believable (and extremely funny) person.

Those familiar with White's recent work won't be surprised at her ability to reconcile such irreconcilable personalities: In shows like Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates and Daniel Stern's Barbra's Wedding, she demonstrated her gifts for comedy, both restrained and manic, tinted with hues of tragic grace; in Steven Dietz's relatively serious Fiction, she gave a surprisingly bright portrayal of a desperate, dying woman seeing to her (and her husband's) final affairs.

But she's seldom played a woman as high-flying and earthbound as Diane. It's not just her innate agent's ability to relate to anyone on any level, but her gift for distilling even the most uncomfortable of situations to their essential elements. She lets nothing stand in her way of filmdom fame and fortune: not her client, Mitchell Green (Neal Huff), not his new prostitute lover Alex (Johnny Galecki), not Alex's overly devoted and dreamy-eyed "girlfriend" Ellen (Zoe Lister-Jones), and certainly not the celebrated gay playwright whose latest Broadway hit could make Mitchell an A-list name.

The core of The Little Dog Laughed, however, is not Diane's story. While Scott Ellis crisply directs the production with a zippy, contempo-nightclub feel (Allen Moyer designed the busily modular set and Don Holder the four-beer-buzz lighting), he doesn't focus the action as strongly as he should on Mitchell. His struggle, to reach the top of his career and find happiness in his publicly forbidden personal life, is supposed to give the play its weight and eventually its sobering dimensions, but the character is presented as little more than a delicate, generic cipher requiring our own impressions of tortured celebrity to fill in the gaps.

Nothing in Beane's writing or in Huff's labored, approximate performance suggests a superstar in waiting, someone whose public and private sense of self are only being kept precariously balanced. Huff does decent, amiable work, but appears neither ambitious enough nor consciously sexual enough to draw us into his concerns. If we can't feel that Mitchell's life is truly at stake, we can't easily sympathize with his needing to choose between following his heart and following his wallet.

Nor does Galecki easily convince as a street-smart rent boy as tormented about his own sexuality as he is his feelings for Mitchell. He plays Alex as a more mature and confused version of the character he played on TV series Roseanne: A smartass kid thrust too early into adulthood, who approaches sex, love, and most things in between with little more than a non-committal shrug. This isn't precisely in keeping with Alex's rough-hewn, school-of-hard-knocks background. Lister-Jones is far more believable as the reformed-bad-apple type, which would be a major plus were Ellen not the sole innocent victim in the bunch.

She doesn't deserve much of what happens to her, including, as it turns out, the resolution that Diane works so hard to effect for them all. But even our love for White and her boisterous Diane can't make the characters' fates - or, for that matter, much of the second act - dramatically satisfying. After Beane establishes his thesis, the play is but one examination after another of the various ways that Mitchell can be built up or brought down. Granted, many of them are highly entertaining - a lunch meeting between Diane, Mitchell, and the unseen playwright whose work they're attempting to option is a masterly example of tight comic writing - but the pieces never interlock into a great play.

Even White's performance, though brilliantly conceived and executed, is an unbalancing force on the proceedings. White can't sell all of Diane's most arch pronouncements, but she nails many more than most actresses could safely be expected to. This might well have led Beane and Ellis to overlook Diane's disproportionate role in the story - White can make it work, but who else ever will?

Still, hers might well prove the comic performance of the season, a tour de force from the opening scene, in which she explains how Mitchell - keeping up his cover at an awards ceremony - touted her as the woman who taught him "how to love" and "how to dream." He knows and she knows that the words are bunk. But White's full force delivery of them, along with the faint hint of longing behind her eyes, suggests Diane's not unaware of the speck of truth in them. The Little Dog Laughed might not affect you in many other ways, but by the end you might well feel that she's taught you how to dream as well.

The Little Dog Laughed
Through January 29
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15 minute intermission
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
Schedule and Tickets: Box Ofice 212.246.4422 or 800.766.6048

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