Broadway's Lame Little Dog

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Can you really take seriously any play in which two characters (gay men, in this instance) break into a passionate embrace, strip off all their clothes — and then get surprised in flagrante when someone bursts unannounced into their hotel room? "Didn't we have a little discussion about knocking before entering?" quips one of the lovers. Shouldn't we have a little discussion about the laziest comedy contrivance in theater history?

It's just one of the more skin-crawling scenes in The Little Dog Laughed, a play by Douglas Carter Beane that wouldn't be worth talking about if it hadn't received mostly rave reviews when it opened off-Broadway last winter, hyping it enough to effect a Broadway transfer this fall. New York theater critics are so starved for something besides musicals to talk about on Broadway that they tend to overrate trifles like this. But The Little Dog Laughed is worse than a trifle; it's an embarrassment.

The premise: A brittle and conniving Hollywood agent (Julie White) is trying to land a big movie project for her hot actor client, while keeping under wraps the fact that he "has a slight recurring case of homosexuality." Thus the groundwork is laid for a "trenchant satire about truth and illusion Hollywood-style" (in the words of the New York Times). But almost nothing in this play is smart enough for satire, or even makes much sense. The project the agent is seeking for the client she doesn't want outed is... a play about two gay lovers. (There's some twisted logic here, but don't ask.) The actor, meanwhile, is involved in a relationship with a waiflike rent boy — who has a girlfriend of his own on the side.

A few problems here. First of all, Tom Everett Scott, as the actor, doesn't for one moment convince us he's any manner of Hollywood star: no bearing, no ego, so nervous about his sexual encounter that he might be a middle-aged Neil Simon garment worker having his first fling with a hooker. The playwright (and director, Scott Ellis) want to be both naughty and cool. There's utterly no passion, not to mention plausibility, in this relationship. (Deadpan exchange: "Let's get started." "OK, I'll get aroused.")

Mostly, the play provides an excuse for overcooked gag lines about how Hollywood agents can't be trusted, how artists are corrupted by the philistines who make movies, how people in California order Cobb salads with everything on the side. Some of the lines trade on offhand buzzwords: "tears finding their lazy way down his derm-abrased face." Other just slap us hard in the kisser: "A writer with final cut — I'd rather give firearms to small children." Compared to a really incisive Hollywood satire like HBO's Entourage, this is pretty lame stuff.

The only possible redemption for all this is the tour-de-force performance by Julie White as the hyperkinetic agent. She certainly delivers a skillfully articulated comic turn: fast, physical, full of double-takes, grimaces, sidelong shudders and other nonverbal expressions of barely suppressed hysteria. But White seems to have simmered a bit too long in her critical raves; it's a look-at-me performance that simply overwhelms the play. On the other hand, this is a play that is painfully easy to overwhelm.