Monday, December 1, 2008

The Little Dog Laughed

Last Tuesday I was invited to go see The Rep's Off-Ramp production of The Little Dog Laughed at the Grandel Theatre. This four character play by Douglas Carter Beane, was originally produced in New York in 2006. In typical St. Louis fashion, it wasn't chosen to be a Mainstage production at the Rep because "some" might find the subject matter (and the male nudity) offensive. That's what Off Ramp productions at the Grandel are for (it's a bit humorous, as if the invisible line that separates the city from the county acts as a barrier to protect the fragile sensibilities of the "some", all of whom must live in the county).

This is a play about deception, self-deception, deceptive appearances, and real deception. The four characters are an up-and-coming film actor named Mitchell, his agent Diane, a rent boy named Alex and Alex's girlfriend Ellen. Mitchell and Diane are in New York for an awards dinner and Diane also uses the trip to make a deal for Mitchell to obtain the rights to film a popular play about two gay men. Although Diane points out to the audience that Mitchell suffers from "recurring homosexuality", his image is the good looking, heterosexual boy next door. Diane thinks the film version of the play can make Mitchell a big star. She says: "If a perceived straight actor portrays a gay role in a feature film, it's noble, it's a stretch. It's the pretty lady putting on a fake nose and winning an Oscar." Of course this opportunity would not be available if Mitchell were not perceived as a straight man.

The problem is that Mitchell has met Alex, who has rocked his world. Diane is worried about protecting her investment even if that means keeping Mitchell in the closet and getting rid of Alex.

The undoubted key to the play is Diane, who is acted brilliantly by Erika Rolfsrud. Diane spends a great deal of the play talking to the audience, analyzing Hollywood, the film industry, and the other characters with ruthless precision. Diane doesn't deceive herself or the audience of the play but her life is based on deceiving other people, including of course Mitchell's adoring public. One of the best scenes in the play is when she and Mitchell meet the (invisible) playwright over lunch to persuade him to sell the screen rights to his play and she is asked to give her word "as a professional" that they won't ask him to change the ending. She looks at the audience and says "That's like asking a whore for her cherry." And then promptly makes the promise.

But all the characters are deceitful, either with others or with themselves and sometimes both. Ellen deceives herself about Alex but also has just ended a relationship with an older man and is running up his credit cards to the max. Mitchell is living a lie for the benefit of his fans. Both Mitchell and Alex deny that they are gay at the beginning of the play, Mitchell tells Alex that he just does occasional homosexual acts. Alex says he does it just for money and that he has a girlfriend.

Alex, who is the heart of the show in the hooker with a heart of gold mode, is still a character who steals Mitchell's money after Mitchell passes out and uses dishonesty as a shield (when Mitchell asks him about his first time with another man he blurts out that it was his stepfather but rescinds it and comes up with another story when he sees that Mitchell can't handle that truth.)

One of the interesting things that Beane did with the script was to make the action seem almost but not quite to be a play within a play, all controlled by Diane. As the play goes on she expounds either to the audience or to other characters (visible and invisible) about how a script should be structured and how to give audiences what they want. Her opening monologue is about Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's and how the first five minutes of the film are among the most perfect openings ever - and then it is all ruined with the appearance of Mickey Rooney.

By the end, Diane is on the phone lecturing the poor (invisible) playwright as to how his play needs to be re-written so that the main character ends up with the girl, not the guy. At the same time she is orchestrating just such an ending for Mitchell's true life story. The success of this play, I think, is that the (real life) audience is not left with any happiness in the ending, but rather the feeling that they've just seen something very sad happen. The audience wanted Mitchell and Alex to end up together. The sadness isn't so much because they didn't end up together but because Diane has been proved right about what motivated all the other characters and was able to manipulate a Hollywood happy-ending in which perception becomes reality. And yet the (real life)audience knows that this is not a happy ending and is not the ending they would have chosen.

And maybe the sad feeling at the end is because Hollywood (and perhaps The Rep) so underestimates the sensibilities of the American public.