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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Surface Entertainment:

The Little Dog Laughed
City Stage
21 North Front Street
March 17-20 &  24-27, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $14 – $18
910-264-2602
www.citystagenc.com

FAUX IN LOVE: Henry Philip Blanton and Morganna Bridgers play Alex and Ellen in a relationship of hidden truths in City Stage’s latest production, ‘The Little Dog Laughed.’ Courtesy photo.

movie stars
In an era where Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and Prop 8 encompasses furious talk and political mire, “The Little Dog Laughed” makes its point well, addressing the hidden truths and prejudices about sexuality with bold and brash humor. Even though it’s taboo in many societal circles to be out and proud, it’s shocking to believe that truth negatively affects the most liberal of them all: Hollywood. Still, with quippy dialogue carrying “Little Dog,” the show manages to be as slow as societal acceptance that love between the same genders can be as real and natural as between man and woman.

Based around the shallow pomposity of Hollywood’s “rights” and “wrongs,” in-the-closet actor Mitchell (Adam Poole) is compelled by his agent Diane (Barbara Weetman) to keep a straight public persona as to not undermine and destroy his inevitable heightened stardom. After all, according to Diane, Hollywood straight actors can score an Oscar for playing gay, but give the same role to someone who’s gay and it’s “just bragging.”

Keeping Mitchell “straight” seems doable—until he meets Alex (Henry Philip Blanton), a rent boy he calls to keep him company in a NY hotel one night after an awards ceremony. Each explores his homosexual desires behind a veil of denial: Mitchell expressing, “I am just curious!” and Alex suppressing it with live-in “girlfriend” Ellen (Morganna Bridgers). Eventually, love festers a more compelling idea of life’s happiness—which, in Diane’s agenteering world, is only career suicide.

Written by Douglas Carter Beane in 2006, “The Little Dog Laughed” was nominated for the 2007 Tony for Best Play and won Best Actress for the role of Diane, played by Julie White during its premiere off-Broadway. Hands down, Diane is the savior of “Little Dog,” single-handedly carrying its juice and intrigue. Locally, there is no one better suited to harness the play on her shoulders other than Barbara Weetman. Weetman’s Diane is likable only in an absolute cunning fashion. She’s cut-throat, quick-witted and manipulating, making her a business woman suited to Tinsel Town’s industry of game players. Therein lies the main problem—or reality—of “Little Dog.” Everything in it is a game, all centered around one idea: Should one give up his true self and integrity for a public life and future celebrity success? To be surrounded by such a heavy assessment, it all seems rather cursory in the end.

Adam Poole as Mitchell is handsome and suave in his role. Poole gives Mitchell enough likability to understand his quandary but not enough to be empathetic toward his plight. It’s easy to say the actor could’ve done this or that, but the real issue lies within the writing itself. Not enough emotive sustenance comes from Beane’s protagonist. Wherein most of us who really care about having it all don’t waiver our personal honor to get it, here the outcome is only a comedy (tragedy?) of drastic errors.

Where Poole shines most is in every scene with Weetman. Their chemistry gels. In fact, Barbara Weetman can enliven any cast. She does well bringing to life many of the shortfalls of the play, thanks to the va-va-voom she interjects in every witty remark (“A writer with the final cut? I’d rather give firearms to small children!”) and swooping problem-solving cleanups. Without a doubt, the theater erupted in laughter upon her every entry and exit. She’s seductive with everyone in the cast but mostly with Poole, making their scenes enjoyable.

The same can’t be said about Poole and Blanton, whose relationship should have the most passion in the play. Though Blanton successfully portrays a young and naïve twentysomething, with a work ethic to be oddly admired, he doesn’t bring enough spark to fill out Alex. He’s missing a magnetism that needs to compel someone, especially a movie star, to drop everything for commitment. Or maybe that’s just my naiveté coming through. I suppose the opposite can be said, too: Love is blind. Though subtlety sometimes works to build a character, it’s simply hard to stack up against the charisma of Weetman’s Diane. Even the full frontal nudity scene—which I give kudos to both Blanton and Poole for exploring—doesn’t produce enough fervor to believe the two men’s tour-de-force affection.

What Blanton does do well is play Alex with an inherent knowing that he deserves contentment in life—something that proves a mature growth spurt from the start of the play. Still, it doesn’t come across as whole, and the lack of believability fails the audience in buying into any “relationship” playing out before them. Moreso, it doesn’t produce enough depth to make them care.

Morganna Bridgers as Ellen, Alex’s on-and-off-again girlfriend, is snotty and ostentatious—”a party girl,” according to Diane, whose values run as deep as the credit card limit from her next sugar daddy. Her “real” love, Alex, has grown from a high-school bond she can’t sever. Bridgers gives Ellen a hip mien, surfaced by fashionable appearance and pretentious talk. She doesn’t define herself other than reveling in total degradation. Bridgers nails this role, with every eye roll, exaggerated enunciation and crimped facial expression.

Underlying issues attempt to run deep among the whole cast, but Beane only lightly includes the real meat of them amongst trivial talk. Was Alex first seduced by his stepfather? We don’t know because he’s too concerned with distracting the issue. Is Ellen’s nagging mother a trademark to her self-loathe? Dunno, Beane only gives us face-value scenarios of her gold-digging behavior. Does Diane’s own hidden sexuality create the need to hide Mitchell’s?  Again, we’re too inundated by her how-to guide narration on obtaining power in Hollywood (apparently, just order a Cobb salad with everything on the side).

The upswing of the show comes from the professionalism of its minimalistic but appropriate set design and the fluidity of movement between scenes. All is handled with easeful care and attention.

Without a doubt, “The Little Dog Laughed” produces many chuckles from Beane’s adept hand at creating flamboyant conversation. But in the end, the show fusses over characters who lack true power: integrity. Personally, I don’t think that’s something to hide behind.

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