Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Such sport

Darlings, I'm just back from 2007's first trip to Broadway, to see a matinee of Douglas Carter Beane's new play, The Little Dog Laughed. Here's what I knew about it going in: it's a satire of the entertainment industry, reputedly a witty one. The playwright is the author of one of my favorite play titles, As Bees in Honey Drown. (I know nothing about the play, but don't you love that title?) It transferred after a very successful off-Broadway run. It stars Tom Everett Scott, whom I know as the young-Tom-Hanks-look-alike in That Thing You Do. It also stars Julie White, who gives what is reported to be one of the season's best performances. And it features a brief instance of "homosexual nudity." Who'd turn down a comp to that?

Things look a bit grim at the start, when Julie White takes the stage to deliver her opening monologue. She isn't miked, and that turns out to be the latest in this blog's growing list of "Things that ought to be good, but aren't." The Cort, where Little Dog is now playing, is small for a Broadway house, but just big enough that White needs to shout to project. As a result, her opening monologue, which should be casual and intimate, feels strained and stagey, and things get off on the wrong foot. But that monologue also describes my exact thought process the first time I saw the film Breakfast at Tiffany's, so it won me over anyway.

The next scene, a traditional dialogue scene, finds its two actors (the aforementioned Scott, and Johnny Galecki, whom I recognized from my casual viewing of Roseanne reruns) not quite so obviously shouting, but still delivering their lines in a stagey, in-quotes, "look at me I'm onstage in a comedy" kind of way. I'm not sure why they've been directed to do so, because Beane's dialogue isn't really that absurd, and his jokes would land a lot better if they were delivered in a more naturalistic style. At first I thought maybe the actors just weren't comfortable onstage, and were falling into sitcom rhythms by force of habit - I kept expecting to hear a laugh track - but by the end of the scene I was sure that wasn't the case. In fact, they both deliver quite solid performances, under the circumstances. So I have to assume that the director, Scott Ellis, got in the way.

The one most tripped up by this "look! it's a comedy" approach is Ari Graynor - speaking of things that should be good but aren't. When I saw her Broadway premiere in Brooklyn Boy, I was amazed at the depth of her characterization and the intelligence of her performance in what was, let's be honest, a very shallow and not-so-intelligent play. But here she never quite settles into the character she's playing, and she ends up being the weakest point in this 4-person ensemble. I'm still confused about how that could have happened, but I look forward to seeing her in whatever she does next (unless it's a Britney Spears biopic, and I'm kind of afraid it will be).

The play itself starts out good and gets better; it's witty, not just what sometimes passes for witty, but actually smart and clever and insightful. As a satire on the entertainment industry, it's not terribly original, but it is generally successful (far more so than For Your Consideration). But what makes it really good is that there's more to it than just barbed commentary on the publicity machine. It's about loneliness, and the desire to connect, and the consequences of being truthful... and although all of that sounds very on-the-nose, in the context of the play it's remarkably subtle and affecting. As the second act unfolded, I became more and more impressed with the intelligence of the writing, and the intricacy of the play's structure. Every time my brain identified an emerging theme, one of the characters would articulate that very theme in the next scene, but in a different context, thus avoiding any eyerolling moments that might undercut the comedy. The second act also piles up the metatheatrical flourishes, and not only are they more amusing than annoying - they actually add to the whole, instead of distracting from it in pursuit of a cheap laugh. Meanwhile, the plot keeps heating up, and somehow the glib and the emotional strains in the script compliment each other effectively right up until the end. It's an impressive feat, and I left feeling flattered: Douglas Carter Beane thinks I'm smart! He thinks all of us, even the lady next to me who keeps nodding off, are smart! There's hope for theatre after all!

This play might even be something of a public service. On the way out of the theatre, I heard a middle-aged lady remark to her companions, "This will totally change the way I look at Us Weekly!" I don't think Little Dog is an earth-shattering expose on the celebrity gossip industry, nor is it intended to be - and if you're as intelligent as Beane thinks you are, you should have figured out most of what it has to tell you (about sham marriages, closeted celebrities, the price of fame, etc.) already. But if seeing this play makes tabloid readers realize the extent to which they're being manipulated - and the fact that that manipulation has a human cost - Beane will have done much of good in the world.

And yes, Julie White is as good as you've heard - but she'd be better if she didn't have to worry so much about being heard. Every time she spoke I worried about what she was doing to her voice. Still, her performance keeps pace with the script to an impressive degree; they grow in complexity together. The nonhuman elements support the overall intelligence of the work: the set design is witty in its own way, the music is well done, and I must give the props master major props, because the New Yorker that Tom Everett Scott flipped through during Act II was the very same issue that arrived in my mailbox only this afternoon. Way to be current. In general, the play filled the Broadway space far better than most transfers do, even if the no-mics decision turned out to be self-defeating. Unfortunately, it's having less success filling the house: if The Playgoer can be trusted (and I've no reason to believe otherwise), it's playing to only 40% capacity. And awards season is awfully far away.


Anonymous said...

After reading your review, I predict much better attendance for "Little Dog Laughed". Your commentary is witty and wise, and I am so glad I found your blog.

Mollie said...

Thank you, Sparky! I only wish I could influence attendance. But actually, Little Dog is selling at about the level it should expect to - the problem is the size of the venue. Off-Broadway, it would probably still be selling out the house, and the people seeing it would probably be having a better experience (for which they would be paying less). Unfortunately, the way the system is set up, playing on Broadway is the ultimate sign of success, even when, as in this case, it doesn't make sense artistically or financially. But that's another post...