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Originally published Tuesday, January 28, 2014 at 5:08 AM

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‘Little Dog Laughed’ balances emotions, showbiz barbs

A review of ArtsWest’s production of “The Little Dog Laughed,” about an actor who must hide his homosexuality to preserve his career.


Special to The Seattle Times

THEATER REVIEW

‘The Little Dog Laughed’

By Douglas Carter Beane. Through Sunday, Feb. 16, at ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; $15-$34.50 (206-938-0339 or artswest.org)

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Douglas Carter Beane’s Tony-nominated “The Little Dog Laughed” smuggles a surprising amount of emotional heft beneath its briskly acerbic exterior. As a self-reflexive showbiz satire, the play strikes sharply and swiftly, and in ArtsWest’s production, Heather Hawkins draws blood as take-no-prisoners agent Diane.

But the real heart of the play, amid the interspersed monologues about Hollywood vapidity and barbs at the industry’s homogenization, is the relationship between Mitchell (Alex Garnett), an up-and-coming movie star, and Alex (Jeff Orton), a rent boy he beckons to his hotel for a night of drunken, anonymous fun. The two click, the relationship moves far past the transaction stage and the women in their respective lives are ticked off.

Diane knows her client’s career prospects are brighter if he can keep the homosexuality under wraps, while Alex’s girlfriend Ellen (EmilyRose Frasca) is OK with her boyfriend sleeping with men for money, but not falling for one of them. With Mitchell about to land the lead in a big movie and Ellen harboring a secret, the potential is high for it to all blow up in their faces.

On paper, “The Little Dog Laughed” sounds like a madcap screwball affair, but ArtsWest’s production achieves more than breezy mishap comedy. A scene that could have played full male nudity strictly for laughs gets those laughs, and a sense that the accompanying emotional nakedness has altered a relationship irrevocably.

ArtsWest interim artistic director Annie Lareau directs her first production for the company, and her clever staging allows the material’s innate sense of melancholy to emerge. Mitchell and Alex’s respective careers have left them well versed in the art of image management, but as they grow closer, each begins to reconsider his own identity. Strong performances from Garnett and Orton see both tapping, with acute emotional precision, into the terrifying first moments of vulnerability they share.

All that introspection is leavened perfectly by Hawkins’ hilarious, foul-mouthed turn as a Hollywood power player who understands that deception isn’t merely a good tool to have in your arsenal; it’s essential to success in the industry. The bitter truth behind her wide smile and peppy proclamations is only allowed to escape in a series of fourth-wall-breaking tirades.

The action plays out on Jenny Littlefield’s hotel-room set design — handsome and well appointed, but utterly generic and soulless. Given the play’s observations about the images one chooses to project, it’s an apt choice.



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