The Little Dog Laughed
The Coachella Valley, home to communities such as Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, and Cathedral City, has relatively little homegrown culture. Traditionally, this area has flourished from winter tourism and second-home ownership, but over time has developed much more industry and attracted a large number of year-round residents. Still, theatre, in particular, has lagged in development.
The Palm Desert campus of California State University, San Bernardino, has begun to fill this gap. It built the Indian Wells Theater and has been staging productions cast with professional actors such as Hal Linden and Hal Williams. This season, the university has staged Tuesdays with Morrie (starring Mr. Linden), Art (starring Mr. Williams) and Joanna Glass' play, Trying. Closing out the season is Douglas Carter Beane's satirical comedy of Hollywood manners, The Little Dog Laughed, starring Dawnn Lewis and Greg Louganis.
In a season revolving around tender relationships and big ideas, Mr. Beane's play is clearly the outlier. It portrays the film industry as stifling any sort of tenderness and artistic integrity, while promoting webs of illusion for the sake of making money. Even so, it is a clever (and much produced) play that has the potential for shocking audiences into laughter. Unfortunately, the Palm Desert production does not plumb the play's potential very deeply.
Mostly, I suspect that the problems come from too little rehearsal. The Little Dog Laughed is a play where the jokes come more from how the lines are delivered than from the text itself. Timing is everything, and rehearsal is needed to perfect timing.
It didn't help that Mr. Louganis, well cast as Mitchell, a rising movie star who is confused about his sexual orientation, had trouble with his lines and seemed to be ad-libbing quite a bit at the performance I attended. I felt sorry for Brian Normoyle, who, as Alex the hustler who touches off Mitchell's existential crisis, had to cover and keep the scenes moving, in the process throwing off the comedic rhythms. Mr. Normoyle also has to contend with Courtney Bell, who doesn't seem to have much sense of how to play Ellen, Alex's on-again-off-again girlfriend.
The Little Dog Laughed turns on the performance of Diane, Mitchell's agent, however, and Ms. Lewis was at least part-way there on opening night. She is at her best in her diva-esque moments but less successful in helping the audience to understand Diane's loneliness and how her tendency to be in overdrive at all times masks core feelings of insecurity.
Director Jeanette Knight seems to be content mostly with traffic management, which was difficult on Walter Lab's junkyard of a set. Chris Bynum and Christine Walters contributed generic lighting and costume designs (and "generic" costumes for this play just aren't good enough, for Diane has to look greatand differenteach time the audience sees her). The house sound crew get in one good joke, about a cell phone ringtone.
There is one scene that demonstrates the potential of this show that isn't fulfilled: Mitchell and Diane are meeting with an unseen playwright in a Tribeca restaurant. The audience sees the two of them interacting and can guess the playwright's reactions. This scene snaps, crackles, and pops. The lines are perfectly timed, and Mr. Louganis and Ms. Lewis bounce off of each other with ease, to very humorous effect. Were that the rest of the production had been polished to the level of that one scene.
The Indian Wells Theater presents The Little Dog Laughed, a play by Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by Jeanette Knight, with Walter Lab (Set Designer), Chris Bynum (Lighting Designer), Christine Walters (Costume Designer), and CSUB Palm Desert (Sound Designer). With Dawnn Lewis, Greg Louganis, Courtney Bell, and Brian Normoyle.
Performances April 16-18 and 23-25 at California State University, San Bernardino Palm Desert Campus, 37-500 Cook Street, Palm Desert. Tickets ($30 - $60) available by calling the box office at (909) 537-8154 or (760) 341-2883, ext. 78154.See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.
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