This is turning out to be a great season for actresses. Following Christine Ebersole’s acclaimed performance in Grey Gardens comes the hilarious Julie White in The Little Dog Laughed, now transferred happily from Off Broadway to the Cort Theatre. As Douglas Carter Beane’s super-agent with a heart of stone, Ms. White is giving one of the funniest performances you could wish to see.
She doesn’t exactly carry the show. She is the show. This isn’t to say that Mr. Beane’s three other characters—the closeted gay movie star, his straight-ish rent boy and the bimbette with “the party-girl vibe”—don’t have their moments. The smart dramatist of As Bees in Honey Drown (who also wrote the screenplay To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar) has given all of them big laughs. But with Ms. White’s unstoppable, venal Diane tearing up the stage, this surprising comedy of manners is surely blessed.
The fortyish actress—who toiled as the sidekick on Grace Under Fire—has worked in theater a lot, but without real success until now. She says brightly that for her role as Diane she drew on the idea of the crafty servant in Molière. It works brilliantly! The agent is essentially the servant to the star (though higher up the glittering ladder than his personal stylist and Pilates trainer). Ms. White is performing a classic example of whirlwind commedia dell’arte. Or, as the wired, dedicated Diane likes to say about her role, she’s “on a journey up the hill with a cross.”
Plays about the farcical insanity of Hollywood or the giant egos of actors aren’t new, of course (c.f. David Rabe, Charles Busch, David Mamet). I feared that Mr. Beane’s comedy about a movie star in the closet might turn out to be as passé as poor Rock Hudson. But The Little Dog Laughed (to see such fun) is witty, bitchy and even quite savage. Douglas Carter Beane (himself openly gay) has it both ways, if I may say so: He pulls off a deftly miraculous achievement by seeming to be both pro-gay and anti-gay simultaneously.
He leaves it to his outrageous, spiky heroine to speak for him. Diane is a dyke and can therefore say anything. “I’m lesbian, he’s a fag,” she announces breezily at the start about her relationship with the closeted Mitchell (Tom Everett Scott). “We’re in show business, we’re a perfect couple.”
Diane is a showbiz witch who’s a disciple of the sand mandalas of the Mahayana Buddhist monks of the Namgyal monastery, which remind the world—she explains—that man’s toil is ultimately folly.
“I don’t have adventures,” says Mitchell when Diane accuses him of having sex with Alex (Johnny Galecki).
“Please. You’re like Huckleberry Finn,” she replies. “Huckleberry Finn on a raft made out of rent boy.”
“What makes you think he’s a rent boy?”
“You’re sleeping with him.”
Mitchell began having gay sex in the Boy Scouts (“the merit badge that dare not speak its name”). “So what if I have a ‘friend’?” he protests. “Maybe I’ll be a famous actor with a ‘friend.’”
“Are you British?” Diane asks him indignantly—a response that brings down the house. “Are you knighted? If not, shut up.”
Ably directed by Scott Ellis, The Little Dog Laughed is for grown-ups: Our coarse, uncensored heroine takes no prisoners. When a “fag playwright” wants her word that the film script of his touching gay love story won’t be changed in any way, she practically has a heart attack. “My word? You want my … what type of negotiation ploy is this? What type of mind fuck is this? … You’re asking a whore for her cherry.”
Perhaps the film talk is a little “insidery” (“A writer with final cut,” Diane groans amusingly. “I would rather give firearms to small children”). Perhaps Mr. Beane’s more sentimental moments—when Mitchell and the rent boy Alex teeter inevitably on the edge of falling in love—are a little too sappy. (“You have me. O.K. I’m here …. ”) It’s also arguable that Alex’s long affair with Ellen (Ari Graynor), the only straight at the party, is a stretch. At the end of the day, however, The Little Dog Laughed is a smashing sex comedy. In Julie White’s electrifying company, all is well with the world.
A Tale of Two Houses
A lot of The Little Dog Laughed takes place in an immaculately soulless hotel room and in imaginary chic restaurants. I like onstage houses to be messy, however. The roof should be falling in, or better still, on the verge. Yet neat, antiseptic houses seem to be the over-careful norm lately, like tiptoeing through garbage when disaster has struck.
I’ve been disappointed recently in two houses that are a century apart: Sarah Ruhl’s Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Clean House, directed by Bill Rauch at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, and George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, directed by Robin Lefevre at the Roundabout on Broadway (now extended to Dec. 17). Both plays come with prestigious casts and heavy cultural baggage: the fine actresses Blair Brown and Jill Clayburgh for Ms. Ruhl (along with a recent MacArthur Foundation “genius” award); the distinguished Philip Bosco, Swoosie Kurtz and Byron Jennings for G.B. Shaw (along with the witty, imposing legend of G.B. Shaw).
I can never quite make up my mind whether Shaw is a narcissistic old windbag or as clever as he would always have us believe. To be in his peacock company is to be dominated by a know-it-all and a man of ideas. I think his Pygmalion a great, proto-feminist play about the British class system (better even than My Fair Lady). Whenever I see his masterpiece, Heartbreak House, however, I’m reminded of an irreverent friend’s damning judgment: “Chekhov for philistines.”
Shaw’s English country house of self-deluding upper-class wastrels on the eve of the world war apocalypse is “Chekhovian,” if only because everyone talks a lot. The wordy play, with its nutty, visionary old salt, Captain Shotover, is a blatant metaphor for bankrupt England. John Lee Beatty’s literal setting is a lapse: The house ought to represent a ship. And Mr. Beatty’s exterior set for Act II is too seductively pretty—unthreatened by any suggestion of decay or imminent collapse. “Is this England or is this a madhouse?” goes one of Shaw’s less subtle pronouncements. Or Hession’s melodramatic, “I am just wondering how much longer I can stand living in this cruel, damnable world.”
This is the cruel, damnable thing: Whatever my doubts about Shaw—my inability, if you will, to accept him whole—this loving, studious production of Heartbreak House is altogether too tidy. I felt no emotional connection with anyone onstage. Should you see the production—admired by some—ask yourself whether you’re moved by it. You’re meant to be. But this is a heartbreak house without heartbreak.
So is Ms. Ruhl’s The Clean House—in spite of the carefully staged, highly organized mess that disrupts the perfect white house “that is not far from the city and not far from the sea.”
That self-consciously airy description is a warning sign. The house is real, yet not real. It is neither here nor there—too much like the play itself, I’m afraid. In her New York debut, Ms. Ruhl nevertheless proves herself to be a gifted, quirky dramatist. I very much liked her Milan Kundera conceit of a woman in search of the perfect joke—a joke so funny it will make you die laughing. But the specifics are disappointing:
“The perfect joke makes you forget about your life. The perfect joke makes you remember about your life,” says Matilde, the “wise’’ Brazilian house maid who hates to clean house. She’s the one trying to discover the perfect joke, but no one person can invent it. “It passed through the air and you caught it,” Matilde explains enigmatically. “The perfect joke is somewhere between an angel and a fart.”
It is? “Somewhere between an angel and a fart” might strike us as impressive at first—an original thought. It’s baloney. The Clean House is a contrived and overworked social comedy, though not without a welcome, eccentric charm. There’s the cold, thoroughly organized mistress of the house—a doctor who’s left suddenly by her apparently happy husband. He’s a surgeon who’s fallen madly, messily in love with his soulmate, a cancer-stricken 67-year-old patient. There’s also the desperately unhappy, neurotic sister who adores cleaning house in order to measure some weird notion of progress, who replaces the jokester maid.
A potentially beguiling play turns out to be mild and anemic. There are a few laughs, but they’re mostly gently wry. There’s a bloodless form of reality and there’s a little magic realism with symbolic apples thrown in. There are serious issues—love, passion, cancer—but they aren’t serious or threatening enough to frighten the horses.
The Clean House refers to life as a soap opera once too often for its own good. There’s a point when it even becomes a full-blown opera (sort of). Ms. Ruhl’s nice, clean, troubled house has everything—except the very thing her play needs most: authentic feeling.