THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED * Written by Douglas Carter Beane * Directed by Scott Ellis * Starring Julie White, Neal Huff, Johnny Galecki, and Zoe Lister-Jones * Second Stage Theatre, New York City, through February 26. 

Douglas Carter Beane’s new play, The Little Dog Laughed, about a closeted movie actor and the agent who’ll do anything to prevent him from coming out, is a wise-cracking satire on that thinnest of paper tigers, Hollywood hypocrisy. Yet it disturbed me more than any play I’ve seen in New York for some time.

Diane is the fire-breathing lesbian agent who sees rising star Mitchell Green as her ticket out of commission-collecting into the realm of movie producing. (Originally written for Cynthia Nixon, Diane is played by Julie White with the same scary, evil confidence she brought to Six Feet Under as the head of the rival funeral parlor chain.) In an opening monologue as dense with hilariously scathing Hollywood commentary as a Bruce Wagner novel, she describes her client’s acceptance speech at an award ceremony. While she maneuvers to parlay his award into a starring role as a gay man in the movie version of a hit play, Mitchell (Neal Huff, miscast as “an aging pretty boy”) swerves around a hotel room so drunk he can’t even have sex with the rent-boy he’s hired. Ostensibly gay-for-pay, Alex (Johnny Galecki) has a club-hopping girlfriend Ellen (Zoe Lister-Jones), who reluctantly endures his dates with what they both call his “moneybags.” 

Improbably, the two guys fall in love. Shades of Ennis-and-Jack, they deny they’re queer while hanging out every day and cuddling every night. This terrifies Diane, who insists that Mitchell can only be accepted playing a gay role if he himself is certifiably straight in the public eye. When Alex gets Ellen pregnant, Mitchell agrees to loan them money for an abortion, but Diane, who writes the checks, exacts a Faustian bargain. If Ellen marries Mitchell, she can keep the baby and have a fabulous life, he can become a star, and Alex can walk away with a wad of hush-money sufficiently large that, as Diane sweetly puts it, “You no longer have to go down on unattractive strangers.” And indeed, The Little Dog Laughed ends with that version of a Hollywood happy ending. 

Scott Ellis’s fast, funny, if somewhat shrill production pulls this off with crowd-pleasing slickness. But I left feeling outraged. The play seemed to be championing the closet as a good career move, as if 35 years of the gay movement had never happened, as if Ellen and Rosie had never come out. When Mitchell suggests he could be a famous actor with a “friend,” Diane’s retort is: “Are you British? Are you knighted? If not, shut up.” 

And yet, isn’t getting ahead by practicing deception the 21st century version of The American Dream? Eventually, it dawned on me that Beane has done something quite subversive. He’s critiquing shallowness by pretending to celebrate it. He’s trotted out all the bullshit reasons Hollywood types give for staying in the closet as if they were actually credible. Mitchell attributes his bursts of homosexuality to a “lethal mix of loneliness and independence and Scotch.” Alex’s schoolyard complaint is “Everybody has something on you if you’re fucking gay.” Diane announces that movies succeed by inspiring lust in women and envy in men, which gay actors can never do. Hearing the characters spout this stuff is like watching horror movies where the hapless teen walks into the deserted house – you want to howl, “Nooooo! Don’t go there!” That ostensibly intelligent people in 2006 still cling to such antiquated, shame-based attitudes is undeniable, but the play dares the audience to shout down a world that rewards gay people for pretending they’re not. If Brokeback Mountain is ultimately about homophobia, The Little Dog Laughed is about cowardice.

The Advocate, February 28, 2006

see also: NY Times feature about Douglas Carter Beane and The Drama Dept.'s production of As Bees In Honey Drown