If excessive laughter is a danger to plays with serious substance, then Julie White is one dangerous woman. The loud, sustained laughs that her performance in Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed repeatedly provokes are enough to reduce almost any script short of Hamlet or King Lear to insignificant rubble. Beane has given White’s character some very good lines, plus many occasions for direct address to the audience. Seizing these, she “works” the house as thoroughly as if the Second Stage’s steeply raked auditorium were some 10-table comedy cellar, triggering laughs far in excess of her good opportunities, and often stopping the show cold. Her ability to do this comes partly from her own intense seriousness of purpose: Playing a mercenary, calculating, wholly cynical Hollywood agent, White attacks the role with the degree of passion that actors normally reserve for Hamlet or King Lear. That she can muster so much ferocity without missing the least shift of vocal color, raised eyebrow, or hairbreadth pause that will ignite a laugh makes her performance even funnier. Little dogs might not laugh at it, but we certainly do.
It’s a good thing White’s there, too, because without her, The Little Dog Laughed wouldn’t provide more than modest chuckles. Something like a sitcom version of Craig Lucas’s The Dying Gaul, Beane’s comedy deals with a closeted movie star (Neal Huff), so repressed he’s apparently ultra-inexperienced in gay matters. One drunken night in New York, he phones an escort service and, improbably, falls in love with the male hustler they send over (Johnny Galecki), who, just as improbably, reciprocates. Complications ensue in addition to all the obvious ones: The hustler inevitably has a female involvement (Zoe Lister-Jones) waiting back at his Williamsburg flat, just dumped by her elderly corporate keeper, while the star and his agent (White) are in the process of purchasing the film rights to a new and extremely gay-themed hit play, which in their minds is destined to be his breakout role and her stepping stone to co-producer status. Such films don’t get made, of course, unless the male star in the gay role is known to be straight. As the agent puts it in one of Beane’s wittier speeches, “If a perceived straight actor portrays a gay role in a feature film, it’s noble. It’s a stretch. . . . If an actor with a ‘friend’ plays a gay role, it’s not acting, it’s bragging.” As you might expect, the star gets nervous about being caught bragging, and his passion suddenly develops a case of cold feet, with expectably complex bittersweet consequences.
Though Beane’s ironies ring true, especially as punched home by White’s stinging delivery, they also ring far too familiar: Predictable in its plot, The Little Dog Laughed is also both skimpy on details (the star apparently has no background, no family, no circle of Hollywood friends) and often puzzlingly unlikely or out-of-date in its details for a comedy with such an ostensibly hard-eyed view of reality. Its final plot twist features one of those dramaturgically convenient pregnancies—committed by the two people least likely to engage in unprotected sex—and fretting over the cost of an abortion, which would barely be a blip on the radar screen in an atmosphere with so much unreported income floating about. These are the most glaring but by no means the only anomalies in Beane’s script, which for all of its spiffily au courant (and often amusing) talk keeps giving off a faint aura of antiquity, of a story that has gotten slightly outdistanced by the rapidly changing rules. (Part of the aura comes from its occasional resemblance to an unhappy Off-Broadway venture of several years back called Strait-Jacket, loosely based on the Rock Hudson case, in which Jackie Hoffman made some good, noisy fun in a role analogous to White’s.)
There’s a sense of some missing reality, too, in Scott Ellis’s slick, swiftly paced, emptily glossy production, starting with its oddities of casting. Huff, a solid, intelligent actor of tormented average joes, is a weird mismatch for a character described in the dialogue as “a borderline aging pretty boy,” while Galecki seems both too mature-looking for his role—this hustler’s standard “scene” casts him as his customer’s schoolboy nephew who needs a place to crash—and too blankly invulnerable for a character so brimming with emotionality and moral qualms. Huff handles his eccentric assignment with aplomb, while Galecki’s looks and eager charm pull him through. Zoe Lister-Jones does what she can with the contradictory and uncentered role of the latter’s partner. Luckily, the production’s shortcomings, like those built into the script, don’t affect your enjoyment of the evening very much: Once the laughs start coming, this show is all White.