Sunday, October 21, 2012
Problematic THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED at Beck
The Cleveland area is in the throes of a parade of gay-themed plays.
Cleveland Public Theatre is staging STANDING ON CEREMONY: THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS; Blank Canvas is showcasing NEXT FALL; Ensemble is presenting THE NORMAL HEART; and Beck is enacting THE LITTLE DOG THAT LAUGHED.
Why the proliferation of homosexual theatrical vehicles? Theatre represents the era from which it comes and right now this country is in the midst of the gay rights movement. The armed forces have altered their stand on gays serving in the military, many states have approved or are considering recognizing unions between same sex couples, the entertainment industry, especially television, is ever increasing the number of gay story lines. The theatre, as a mirror of culture, is also reflecting on various homosexual issues.
Douglas Carter Beane’s THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED centers on Mitchell, a conflicted, closeted gay actor, who is at a cross-roads of his career. Diane, his agent, wants him to star in a play written by a gay writer, about two homosexual men. She thinks that Mitchell, being a “straight” actor would become a powerhouse in the industry by assuming the role, but has to be a straight playing a gay, not a gay playing gay.
Mitch has a recurring case of homosexuality. So he doesn’t have to face reality, he gets drunk and rationalizes his sexual experiences with male hookers. Unfortunately he “rents” Alex, who turns out to be more than a trick. Mitchell and Alex find some common ground and are soon acting more like lovers than john and hooker.
Things get complicated when Alex’s best friend, Ellen, becomes pregnant, supposedly with Alex’s child. What to do? They turn to Mitchell for the money to get an abortion (why a $200 an hour prostitute needs to turn to someone else for $1500 doesn’t make sense, but that’s the story). Diane has a better idea. She perceives a scheme wherein Mitchell is to marry Ellen, have Alex as his “assistant,” and become a father. Mitchell, in the eyes of the public, is a “straight” married man with a child, and, Mitchell and Alex get to continue their sexual liaison. As it turns out, Diane, who in actuality is prostituting herself to sell her client’s talents, and Alex, who knows he is a man for sale, both, in a clever plot twist, get what they want.
The conclusion keynotes the play’s title, THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED, comes from the nursery rhyme, Hi Diddle. The last lines read, “The little dog laughed to see such sport, and the dish ran away with the spoon.” Yes, that’s what happens in the play!
Beane’s plot, though interesting, has a short shelf-life. When it was written in 2006, there was still a tradition to hide the public life of actors who were gay. It came from the long history of manipulating public opinion by matching homosexual actors with women so they could remain in the closet. It resulted in such gay stars as Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Farley Granger and Richard Chamberlin being perceived as “straight.”
Recently, that has not been the format. Motion picture and television performers have been emerging from their closets, often flaunting their sexuality. Openness, except in the field of athletics, is fairly the norm today. Gays openly play straight roles (e.g., Neil Patrick Harris on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER), straight actors play gay (e.g., Brandon Routh, of Superman fame, in PARTNERS, Darren Criss, as Blaine in GLEE, and Eric Stonestreet as Cam on MODERN FAMILY).
Audiences don’t seem to care who is portraying whom. Coming out hasn’t affected the careers of stars. In fact, in many instances it has enhanced their following. Think of Lance Bass, Ricky Martin and Harris. Or, is ignored, as in the case of Ellen DeGeneris.
It is this breaking down of the walls of sexual identification that weakens THE LITTLE DOG THAT LAUGHED. The premise of the show, the foundation of the actions, has crumbled. This might not have been a problem if the powers that be had set the play in 1990, or even 2006, the time of the original production, but stating in the program “time: today” takes it out of the historical mindset and forces a 2112 mindset. The premise does not hold up under that scrutiny. It’s like staging HAIR as a 2012 era show. The times, they have changed!
The Beck production, under the direction of Scott Plate, is quite acceptable. The overall effect of the script, within the limits of the shaky foundational idea, holds up. The actors make their characters into an identifiable people.
Laura Perrotta is bitch-right as Mitchell’s lesbian agent. Her caustic tone is right, but she sometimes sounds automatic, rather than meaningful. In some instances, her rapid pace causes difficulties in idea reception. Her most effective instant is her revealing the plot twist to Alex, that sends the play to its conclusion.
Phil Carroll breathes conflicted life into Mitchell, though, at times, he seems to be acting rather than living the role. He appears to be a little uncomfortable in the nude scenes. (Yes, for the conservative among you, there is full-frontal male nudity, and some swearing as well. Some may question whether the nudity pushes the plot along, but that was the decision the director made, so it was included.)
Brandyn Leo Lynn Day (that’s quite a mouthful for a marquee or program), is quite believable as Alex. Both in and out of his clothes, he is able to portray a real person with faults and confusions.
Lindsey Augusta Mercer develops Ellen into a rather one-dimensional person. Part of this is development of her character in the script, part a seeming lack of clarity by Mercer on who Ellen really is.
Laura Carlson Tarantowski’s scenic design makes for a nice contemporary setting, but its layout creates some voice projection issues.
The theatre’s acoustics are not good, causing flatness of sound. Added to that issue is the audience being seated on two angles of the stage. This creates hearing problems. When the actor is facing side A, side B can’t hear and vice versa. This is not helped by stage movements which sometimes find performers tucked into one or the other side of the acting area, and/or sitting in the audience, increasing hearing difficulties.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED continues the recent trend of area theatres to probe into the gay phenomenon. Though it is somewhat dated due to changing attitudes towards gays in the arts, it still makes for an interesting theatrical experience.