Stockton Civic Theatre’s “The Little Dog Laughed” scores a controversial comedy hit
Diane has a problem. It’s called love versus career. But is it really love? And is the career a fantasy?
The top agent in Hollywood (at least in her own mind), Diane is promoting an actor whom she wants to make the transition to stardom and financial reward. All she has to do is keep actor Mitchell Green locked in the closet.
One problem with that. Mitch wants to come out of the closet, risking the kind of negative publicity that might blow his reputation and the hope of motion picture fame and fortune.
For the tough-talking, priority-obsessed Diane, that’s a huge no-no. In her book, money supersedes love, especially when she sees big money slipping out of her grasp. Can she keep Mitch’s playboy love life under wraps to maximize his popularity and her own success?
Mitch isn’t the only migraine plaguing Diane. The new fellow in his life is a Hollywood rent boy who’s in and out of too many beds and living with a girl he may or may not love who will soon have a little surprise for him. It’s the kind of scandal that the tabloids feast on.
Moving in and out of one another’s lives and prone to telling us all about their problems from various positions on stage, these four lost souls are the characters of “The Little Dog Laughed,” a Tony-nominated play in its original Broadway production that concludes its run this weekend at Stockton Civic Theatre’s intimate and interactive Pam Kitto Black Box Theatre.
Directed by Dennis Beasley, Douglas Carter Beane’s play comes alive and then some thanks in no small measure to the performance of Melissa Esau (Diane), who doesn’t miss a beat. She’s the woman in charge, the top sergeant, the disciplinarian to counter show business chaos. Esau is commanding in her role from the moment she opens the action in her dress-to-kill gown and no-holds-barred monologue.
Here, too, James Reed (as Mitchell Green) and Jack Lechich (as Alex Eatenbrook) take us through all the attractions and subtractions of a love affair that may be doomed as much by their own shortcomings as by Diane’s interventions.
Jenna Zepponi Lehman, the fourth member of this talented cast, offers a performance of her own as Ellen, a naïve, needy and seemingly lost woman who needs to find her conscience and her own assertive voice in order to make sense of her troubled life. Assuming, of course, that problems can be corrected and the play’s foursome can somehow find the pathway to a happy ending. You’ll have to guess about that since this critic is keeping the plot spoiler locked in a closet of its own. Not even the aggressive Diane—who might easily earn the nickname of She Who Must Be Obeyed—could coerce me into giving the ending away.
The beauty of interactive theatre is that you are so close to the action it as if you’re part of it. Nothing brought this home so well for me as a key scene in which Diane and Mitch are seated in front of an imaginary host, trying to sell the idea of Mitchell Green as the star willing and able to take a play from stage to cinema. Esau and Reed give it their all and play it so earnestly and believably that you may feel you are the person receiving the pitch. It’s a marvelous bit of interactive showmanship and it isn’t any wonder that when it concluded, the theatre audience I sat with burst into appreciative applause (which I joined with a polite shout of “Bravo!”).
The title of the play may lure pet lovers who suspect that an adorable little canine is the star of the show. Such is not the case. “The Little Dog Laughed” takes its title from a classic Mother Goose laugher about a world gone wacky. You probably remember it from childhood. The cow jumps over the moon. The dish runs away with the spoon. This may be playwright Beane’s way of hinting that we are about to enter the fairy tale world of Hollywood where illusion and the improbable run rampant.
Is this what show business is really all about? If so, Diane is the perfect guide to the bizarre side of the entertainment industry, urging her misbehaving client to behave according to her strict specifications or risk professional suicide.
If Mitch does succeed in making the jump to the big time, one can only wonder how long he would last there. It is easy to imagine him arguing to Diane that since he’s now become a character invented by screenwriters, his private life should be his alone, free to do as he wishes beyond the scrutiny of controlling agents and tabloid snoops.
None of the play’s four characters are what you would call happy campers. Discontent is the common thread in their lives and though none of them express their frustrations as eloquently (and acidly) as Diane, the meaning of love has eluded all of them. As one truly says. “We couldn’t identify our feelings if they were in a police lineup.” That’s why you may be inclined to extend your sympathy or pity to them. Even though we’re dealing with characters you probably wouldn’t want to invite to your party, you can’t help hoping that these are comeback kids rather than hopeless causes.
This being adult fare, you can expect some occasional profanity (nothing you haven’t heard outside the barracks or boarding school) and a bit of nudity that in one scene becomes more than a bit. Whether the peek-a-boo frolic is more amusing than shocking depends on your taste. The lady across the aisle from me raised more than an eyebrow at these antics. “Oh, my God!” she told me later, “I’ve never seen anything like that on a stage. I thought I was going to have a heart attack!”
I’m glad to report she not only survived the play, but enjoyed its wicked humor. The little dog wasn’t the only one who laughed.
A retired reporter and editor, Stockton resident Howard Lachtman has written Delta-centered detective stories, Stockton Civic Theatre reviews and a variety of baseball tales for Soundings. In 2006. he was honored by the Stockton Arts Commission for “24 years of superior review and commentary on the performing and literary arts in Stockton.”