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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Little Dog Laughed Enlivens NJ Theatre

The Little Dog Laughed
Mark Irish and Scott Tyler
The Bickford Theatre in residence at the Morris Museum has an older demographic than most theatres and has carved out a solid niche for itself by largely producing solid revivals of cozy, old fashioned (not infrequently in their own middle age) plays alongside the occasional musical or musical revue of similar nature. In this context, artistic director Eric Hafen's production of Douglas Carter Beane's often brilliant, sharply satiric, bracing 2006 comedy The Little Dog Laughed takes on the added pleasure of feeling a bit edgy and subversive.

The Little Dog Laughed satirizes the soul-sapping hypocrisy and veniality of Hollywood types caught up in their desperate need to succeed in the extremely precarious, high stakes and very public movie industry. A ferocious expert in dissembling treachery is ten percenter Diane, in New York for an awards ceremony with her prize client Mitchell, a rising star Hollywood hottie. A career-centered, not very active lesbian, Diane is thrilled and surprised that Mitchell signaled her out as his love and inspiration and then kissed her passionately after receiving his award. However, Diane is less than pleased the next morning when she comes to Mitchell's hotel room to find him naked in bed with Alex, a sweet, very young man whose favors Mitchell has bought. Alex, who heretofore has convinced himself that he is straight and only has same sex partners in order to ply his trade, actually has a girlfriend. Mitchell and Alex are both sexually confused and in denial which, of course, means that they will both soon know that they are gay and in love. Diane is shortly in negotiation with a gay playwright to buy the movie rights for his hit play about two gay men to star Mitchell. Diane sees it as her ticket to producing a film. However, Mitchell in defiance of Ellen shows up at the play with Alex.

On Broadway, this play was a light, high-flying comic romp dominated by a socko award winning comedic performance by Julie White as Diane. While the comedic brilliance of the writing has not been dimmed, the awkward, growing relationship between Mitchell and Alex, and the collateral pain inflicted on Alex's girlfriend Ellen have taken on a more emotional and serious tone. Thus The Little Dog Laughed is now a darker and heavier play than it was in Scott Ellis' (Second Stage) and Broadway production. This also shifts the center of the play more toward Mitchell and Alex. The slower, less comedic, more tentative take on Mitchell and Alex's first session makes it take a while to energize the play, but once Diane shows up at Mitchell's hotel room, the play spring to vibrant life. The added weight given to Mitchell and Alex's relationship by director Eric Hafen then pays dividend by bringing extra heft and emotion to its relationships.

There are major additional off-stage characters so well written and colorfully acted, as the stage characters recreate and narrate off-stage scenes, that it may startle you to realize that the cast is not larger than it is. There is a particularly hilarious scene in which Diane and Mitchell recount their lunch meeting with the gay playwright and the apple polishing, false sincerity, and deception flow as smoothly and sweetly as honey. The good vibrations are only threatened when Mitchell is sincerely carried away. Diane is really thinking, "A writer with final cut, I'd rather give hand grenades to small children." Let me lob one more of Beane's many laughter grenades at you. Mitchell and Alex recall their Boy Scout experiences and "the merit badge that dare not speak its name".

There is a balanced ensemble feel to this production. Liz Zazzi is sharply ironic and admirably strong as the sharp as a tack Diane, precisely nailing every laugh. Mark Irish adroitly conceals and convincingly reveals the real Mitchell Green. Scott Tyler enables us to discover Alex's heart and soul along with him. Cynthia Fernandez is a convincing Ellen.

Jim Bazewicz's airy semi abstract unit setting works well. Alysson Shapiro has designed costumes which are apt and attractive.

There is a very clever, sharply satiric resolution to this play that really stings. It is presented, tongue in cheek, as the happy ending demanded by Hollywood producers. Actually, it is The Little Dog Laughed's uncompromising final zinger.

Hopefully, this highly regarded, very modern play will attract new audiences to the Bickford. As for its senior citizen regulars, it is likely that, like this old codger, they will find it refreshing to see a sharp new bow in Bickford's admirably stocked quiver.

The Little Dog Laughed continues performances (Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 2 pm) through February 13, 2011 at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, New Jersey 07960, Box Office: 973-971-3706; online: www.bickfordtheatre.org.

The Little Dog Laughed by Douglas Carter Beane; directed by Eric Hafen

Cast
Diane.....................Liz Zazzi
Mitchell................Mark Irish
Alex....................Scott Tyler
Ellen.......Cynthia Fernandez


Photo: Warren Westura


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- Bob Rendell



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