The Little Dog Laughed
Author Douglas Carter Beane uses his play "The Little Dog Laughed" to deconstruct the concept of the happy ending. In doing so he turns the character of comedy into a daunting figure of tragedy; the only morally upright and honest character at the "happy end" is the only "loser" in the game of life and he emerges from his other self with ill-gotten gains and a sense of what life would be if we could all only be transparent in expressing our feelings.
This unusual play is closing the season at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY and though it is a downer, it is also an important play at a time when dishonesty is rearing its ugly, political head in our region, our country and the world.
Mitchell, a movie star, and his agent/manager/producer Diane, a manipulative bitch, are coming to grips with their professional relationship. When he meets the hustler Alex, whose best friend Ellen, a dilettante and creative non-entity, has just gotten pregnant by Alex.
None of them are happy about their situations, but Hollywood demands its happy endings and so with Diane at the helm just such a result is forged out of the emptiness of all four of their lives. No one gets what they deserve; no one gets what they want. Satisfaction is afforded only those of us who cheer for our celluloid heroes and our paparazzi kinships. The rest of us are force-fed the pap that passes for reality. So it goes and so it will be.
Looking at the ugliness in these beautiful people makes us look at the ugliness in those we have chosen to lead us through difficult economic times, through the anger of terrorists and outraged religious leaders. It forces us to engage in the irrevocable decisions we make at the polling places and voting booths. The pretty picture isn’t always the right one to choose, it seems; that’s just too much Hollywood, too much giving in to the image-formers, too much easy choice.
Bert Bernardi, on a visually gorgeous but cold and unstimulating set designed by Abe Phelps, directs a company of players who can make the most beautiful moments into the worst nightmares without losing a smile or forcing a slouch or making us cry. There is a dryness to this production that screams reality and moment-in-time and here-and-now. Whatever emotions this quartet may feel is shrouded, not in their words or actions which are right for their personal dilemmas, but in an aspect of aloofness that provides a wall for each of them.
Bernardi plays with the playwrights monologues giving them a too stump-speech sensibility that helps remove his actors from his audience during the scenes they play out with one another. It is a brilliant choice for a play that is hard to like even as you enjoy the playing of it. If we saw this play through the wide-screen of an HD television it would seem just right; it is that removed from the personal involvement that a play usually engenders.
Ruth Kennedy plays Ellen. From her first scene to her last she is hard to like, hard to feel comfortable with, hard to appreciate. As the all-time winner of the American happy ending, the Ann Romney type winner with the glamour-boy husband, the perfect child, the rosy future, Kennedy allows us only momentary glimpses into the human heart of Ellen.
They are hot and fiery when they occur but they slip by in a flash of time and the indifference to her own image is what finally emerges. She is the perfect stereotype of the B-picture fade-out; she is flawless in her presentation.
Jimmy Johansmeyer is the movie star with the underlying secret that won’t allow him to play a role with honesty in movies or in life. He is devastating in his sudden resolve to be the man he knows full well he cannot be and still be successful. As he regresses into the character’s fallibility he moves forward into the only honesty he can handle, that of the public imagination and belief in his human reality. He is Rock Hudson with a difference: he doesn’t continue to indulge his secret heart. Johansmeyer does him justice, playing the man’s inner conflicts with equal strength as he portrays the public man first and foremost.
Diane is played with guts, verve, gusto and vigor by Melissa MacLeod Herion. She narrates the play in a quirky fashion that can only be a Hollywood take on life. She is an unapologetic go-getting Lesbian who masks her own personality with the assumed persona of the female corporate magnate bent on the destruction of all other male-dominated corporations that stand in her way.
Herion plays the tough side brilliantly and the few and far-between instances of real emotion with a chilling sincerity. In the political arena of clear and distinct opponents she would be a hard act to follow and an impossible target to hit.
Justin Rigg is Alex, the hustler who almost turns the real world into the ideal fantasy for a theater-going audience. Alex touches people, even Diane, forcing them to see a better world. He betrays his own deeper instincts when he takes money from anyone for any purpose and it is money, at the end, that cripples him and at the same time sets him just a bit free. That he ends up in a state of limbo is unfortunate but where can an honest man go in times like these?
Rigg is the warm, gooey center of the play. It is his openness in the role that allows that aspect of humanity to shine through. Rigg gets the basics here and displays them for all to see. His final moments, on a plane to an unknown, or at least undisclosed, destination are touching and lyrically played in a set of lines that allow for no lyricism. He is just a man set loose on a world that will never accept him for his past or his present providing no satisfying future for him or his kind.
It would be nice to think that Alex’s "kind" was us, ourselves, but we’re not him, or at least I don’t believe we are. Playwright Beane’s people are deeply flawed and not representative of the perfect people Mitchell might play in a movie, that Diane might forge from some handsome hick or Ellen might exploit for her own credit card controlled ends.
Alex comes the closest in this world of dishes running away with spoons and cows jumping over moons as the little dog laughs to see such things around him. The play reminds us to look closely at the world we watch daily; it reminds us that not everything is entertainment. Some of it is real, far too real to ignore.