The Little Dog Laughed A new play by Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by Scott Ellis. Set design by Allen Moyer. Costume design by Jeff Mahshie. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Original music by Lewis Flinn. Cast: Tom Everett Scott, Julie White, Ari Graynor, Johnny Galecki.
"Is everyone happy?"
By the time this becomes the most important question facing the characters of The Little Dog Laughed, it's long been rhetorical for the audience watching Douglas Carter Beane's new play unfurl at the Cort. And the two women asking it are the reason why.
For better or for worse, it's impossible to separate Diane the Hollywood agent from the actress playing her, Julie White. While the question of happiness is a frequently a crucial bargaining chip for Diane, whose life is one endless negotiation, it's nowhere on White's radar. She's too busy making people happy to pay heed to such petty concerns.
Thank goodness she is. White, who originated Diane when The Little Dog Laughed first opened at Second Stage in January, is giving one of the most resplendent comic performances I've ever seen. It's not just the intricate details she works into Diane's stance (regally poised, but precarious), her voice (a velvet-lined sanding belt), and even her hair - which, when its owner is at her tensest and most alert, takes on a life of its own. But that this shark in designer shoes, this power player with a pulse of publicity, is not only grittily hilarious but capable of having her heart broken - that's an accomplishment worth celebrating.
White's work, which has only improved in the last 10 months, is of the rare kind that sends palpable surges through an audience. Not just in anticipation of what she'll do or say next - for example, ordering a salad or coercing a reluctant writer to turn his play into a movie are in her mind - as in practically no one else's - exactly the same thing - but in how she'll keep upping the stakes. That she kicks off the evening with an extravagantly oversized monologue about her rising-star client Mitchell Green's public refutation of rumors of his homosexuality by kissing her at an awards ceremony, and yet tops it time and time again over the next two hours, is the art of a superwoman.
For all the talk about Christine Ebersole down the street in Grey Gardens, to my eye it's White's performance that stands out as one of the most exciting of last season Off-Broadway, and hands down the most exciting yet this Broadway season. But much like Ebersole, White faces a difficult challenge: The show and the other people are in it never quite reach her skyscraping level. If White's every word lures you to the edge of your seat, when the theatrical lens of Beane and director Scott Ellis focuses elsewhere, sitting back somehow seems more appropriate.
That's not to say that the rest of The Little Dog Laughed is a loss. If anything, the show is sharper and more cohesive now than when it opened Off-Broadway, with White and her castmates having refined their performances to better highlight Diane's role at the center of the story. (Before, she felt a bit like an uncomfortably inflated featured character; now, she's the dynamic, worthy lead.) And two replacement actors, Tom Everett Scott and Ari Graynor, strengthen vital moments and tie up loose ends their predecessors could not.
But the story of Mitchell (Scott), whose life in the closet is impeding his burgeoning superstardom, still feels like it's on less than completely firm ground. It all hinges on Mitchell's relationship with Alex (Johnny Galecki, repeating his Off-Broadway role), a rent boy he calls one drunken night in New York, but which develops with rapidity rather than specificity. From spending the night together to spending the day together to considering spending a life together, Mitchell and Alex - both of whom consider love a foreign language - move faster than Beane can in making their union believable.
More carefully drawn and more immediately compelling is Alex's life with his girlfriend Ellen (Graynor), which creates a wry counterpoint to Mitchell's struggle for keeping his private life as private as possible. The movie star-to-be may be living a lie, but the youngsters struggling at the opposite end of the social spectrum aren't appreciably more honest; which side has more at stake isn't always the one you might suspect.
It's when these stories glance and later converge that The Little Dog Laughed most satisfyingly fulfills its promise as a devastating and satirical comedy of manners between the elite and the kids on the street. The play's first act, in which Diane must move and shake overtime to quell Mitchell's natural inclinations and buy him the gay play that could put him on the A-list overnight, is funnier than the second. But when humanity strikes after intermission, and choices for at least four futures must be made in the dotting of an i, the play acquires deeper, sadder, and scarier overtones that give it a more appealing theatrical weight than the first act's hilarity suggests it can bear.
This is augmented greatly by the presence of Scott, a legitimate Hollywood star in his own right, whose mixture of bravado and business cluelessness is just what Mitchell needs to convince as an almost-there, high-salary heartthrob. The slight stiffness he possesses, which the role's originator didn't, winningly suggests a man who's already learned the cameras are always watching. Graynor brings an innocence to Ellen that's sorely needed to provide a baseline of personality for the performer she's gradually forced to become. While I remain unsure that boy-next-door Galecki is correctly cast as rough-trade Alex, he and Ellis have uncovered colors and contradictions that were previously obscured, making Alex much more central to the story.
Though Ellis has polished the production as a whole, and successfully translated Allen Moyer's sleek, sliding set and Donald Holder's lights to a larger, more conventional playing space, White and Diane still glimmer most brightly. This is partially by design, as Beane wants to instill in us some sympathy for his hardest character. But in Diane, White finds a textured craftiness and a hope that what she's professing is true that transcends the role as written: Those qualities make her, paradoxically, the play's most forthright, relatable, and lovable character, when you'd expect her to be anything but.
It's a balancing act that threatens to topple the whole play, and Lord help replacement actresses now and forever who must tackle the role. But for now it works, and helps Beane come closer to ideally presenting us his world, in which public lies aren't just currency but lifeblood. If Beane is still struggling to mine all that world's demonic truthfulness, White's Diane, farther than anyone from being a saint, just might be its salvation.