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Originally published Thursday, August 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Theater

"The Little Dog Laughed" takes on sexual identity and love in Hollywood

Theater review: "The Little Dog Laughed," Douglas Carter Beane's Tony-nominated play about Hollywood, plays at Seattle's Intiman Theatre Aug. 15-Sept. 13, 2008; reviewed by Misha Berson.

Seattle Times theater critic

Theater review

"The Little Dog Laughed"

By Douglas Carter Beane, plays Tuesdays-Sundays through Sept. 13, Intiman Theatre, Seattle Center; $10-$48 (206-269-1900 or www.intiman.org).

Broadway comedies bashing Hollywood mores are nearly as old as Broadway and Hollywood themselves.

In his 2007 Tony-nominated Broadway play "The Little Dog Laughed," New York author Douglas Carter Beane takes up the cudgel with zest, aiming squarely at such time-honored targets as mercenary showbiz agents, self-absorbed movie stars and producers who grind daring drama into blandly palatable screen fare.

What Beane tackles here which most of his predecessors steered clear of, are sincere matters of sexual identity and the nature of love — concerns that, on occasion, elevate "Little Dog" above the level of cunning cartoonishness.

But what really fuels the play is the motor-mouth monologues of Diane — played by Christa Scott-Reed with verbal panache and claws-bared élan, in Intiman Theatre's local debut of "The Little Dog Laughed."

Model-thin and dressed to kill in costumer Elizabeth Hope Clancy's swanky evening wear and designer power suits, Scott-Reed is a sharp-elbowed Dream Factory combat vet with zero illusions about her main client, Mitchell (Neal Bledsoe).

She's going to vault him into superstardom, whatever it takes. And when Mitchell's "slight, recurring case of homosexuality" rears its head in a heated romance with a young male prostitute, Alex (Quinlan Corbett), Scott-Reed's Diane swoops in to do damage control.

She orders Mitchell to "butch it up" and contrives schemes to neutralize those pesky New Yorkers, Alex and his sometime lover Ellen (Megan Hill). And the plum at stake, for her fake-straight client Mitchell? The role of a gay man, in a big Hollywood film of a hit play.

Beane craftily piles on the ironies of a gay man pretending to be straight, to play gay. And did we mention that Diane is herself a closeted lesbian?

Diane's machinations, and the Eve Arden-esque assessments of Hollywood realpolitik, are snappily outrageous and mirthsome. (She's first cousin, by the way, to the loquacious, fabulous con-woman Alexa, in Beane's earlier play "As Bees in Honey Drown.")

Act 1 dwells initially on the unlikely affair of Bledsoe's handsome, yearning Mitchell and Corbett's engaging Alex. Their loaded first encounter, after a drunken Mitchell orders up a "rent boy" from a prostitute service, is essentially a long tease. (It's also sexually explicit, with some near-total nudity.)

The affair raises one of Beane's more thoughtful points: that even gorgeous young gays may crave male affection, as much (or more) as male sex. And while the two things are not mutually exclusive, they are not synonymous.

No surprise, though, that the New Yorkers come out of this with more heart than the Tinsel Towners do.

Alex, with his unlikely but appealing lack of jadedness, truly grapples with conflicting feelings, in a textured turn by Corbett (a Seattle actor getting a well-deserved break here.).

And Alex's off-on lover Ellen (spunkily played by Hill, a Seattle stage alum and recent Harvard University grad) also matures, from potty-mouthed party girl to a person with (at least temporary) signs of emotional depth.

Fracaswell Hyman's direction mines the script's lode of humor adroitly, aided by Matthew Smucker's sleek settings, whirring along on a crimson-hued turntable. Joseph Swartz's sound design favors the droll love songs of Cole Porter — a closeted gay man, with a lesbian wife.

Diane's own nascent romantic feelings for Mitchell evaporate as her brittleness increases. But hey, diddle diddle (as the nursery rhyme that inspired the title goes), it's really her cattiness we're meant to adore.

And though Beane suggests reasons for it (such as the sexism of Hollywood higher-ups), she's still a gorgon. Just as Mitchell is, ultimately, a male bimbo — particularly given the contrived, tone-shifting ending.

"The Little Dog Laughed" makes good on all the Hollywood-bashing chortles it promises, but doesn't yield all the deeper epiphanies and insights it hints at. That makes us care a lot less in the end about Diane and Mitchell than we might have. But the laughs they provide are still delicious.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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