The Little Dog Laughed, Douglas Carter Beane's satire on Hollywood ambition, is what one would call a cynical play. Now playing at Second Stage, this short, two-act work contains any number of thigh-slapping laugh lines, but it is also a thrice-told tale of the Tinseltown mindset. Indeed, one plot development has been offered elsewhere at least two times in the last 12 months: The tiresome trope about Hollywood power-wielders demanding that hapless playwrights rewrite their scripts to make them more appealing to the non-gay, non-Jewish, non-whatever mainstream audience. Yes, Beane has the chutzpah to peddle this one on the heels of Craig Lucas's film version of his play The Dying Gaul and Donald Margulies' play Brooklyn Boy. By now, audience members can join in on the dialogue as if at a sing-along.
It's a marvel that no one at the Drama Dept., of which Beane is artistic director and co-founder, or at Second Stage -- and that includes director Scott Ellis -- talked Beane into finding a substitute wrinkle. And because Beane also tosses off the occasional truly witty line, no one seems to have noticed that, in writing a comedy-drama about empty lives, he has written an empty play. The best he's done is updated the familiar plot with comments such as "I haven't checked the blogs today."
The narrative he's spun has movie actor Mitchell Green (Neal Huff) falling for a likeable hustler named Alex (Johnny Galecki) during a Manhattan sojourn and thereby jeopardizing his reputation as a promising (aka "straight") leading man. Unfortunately, it's about as convincing as Paris Hilton's screen debut. The other dramatis-personae are Mitchell's manager/partner, Diane (Julie White), and Alex's sorta-bisexual sorta-girlfriend, Ellen (Zoe Lister-Jones). Alex may be the only honest character of the four snake-pit habitués. How cynical, not to mention credulity-stretching, is that? (If theatergoers suspect that Beane had Tom Cruise in mind when crafting this tale of a thwarted homosexual romance, I supsect the author wouldn't hurry to disabuse them of the notion.)
There is one gem of a scenelet, in which Mitchell and Diane corner an unseen naif of a playwright at a posh eatery where they're picking up the check. They fast-talk the guy into selling them his acclaimed work with no strings attached. Asked to give their word about keeping the homosexual angle intact, they fumfer slickly and swear that they'll be true to the property. Nevertheless, Diane likens the request to "asking a whore for her cherry." This section of the play was part of the fall 2004 Tribeca Theater Festival Downtown Plays (under the title He Meaning Him). I can't say whether Beane expanded The Little Dog Laughed after the warm reception that the 10-minute scene received or whether he'd extracted it from the already-finished longer work; I can say that he would have been better advised to let his little dog lie, since it has picked up fleas on arising.
This is a play about keeping up appearances, and so it is perhaps fitting that the appearance of the Second Stage playing area is the most successful aspect of the production. Allen Moyer's set, framed by two high stacks of bamboo cabaret chairs, features a hotel room that repeatedly slips out from a floor-to-ceiling paneled wall upon which Donald Holder flashes hot, rectangular lights. Jeff Mahshie's opening gown for White is a knock-out, and Lister-Jones appears in a succession of smart black outfits before making a late entrance in a telling white number. On the other hand, the predominantly black-and-gray wardrobes for Huff and Galecki are engineered for quick doffing. Lewis Flinn's sound design, which samples a few fair-use measures of "Moon River," achieves its aim.
The actors, one and all, land their gags. Lister-Jones ably fills out Beane's portrait of a jilted woman who uses sarcasm to mask her wounded pride. Huff makes the most of spineless Mitchell, who commits to no one but himself. Galecki, his straight black hair looking like dark wheat in a strong wind, couldn't be more appealing. And then there's White, getting all of the big laughs. As a lesbian more devoted to career than personal relationships, she's full of gestures and clever vocal roller-coastering. She conquers big time -- much like Kristine Nielsen, who gave a not dissimilar performance only a few weeks back in Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon.
Speaking of Durang, who continues to be as reliably amusing as the sophomore in the back row with the sharp tongue, he and Beane and Nicky Silver are clearly members of the funny-boy fraternity Tappa Kegga Yuks. Oh, can they mock! You just wish that each of them would finally graduate and write a completely satisfying, mature play.