Happiness, with a price tag
Such is the problem facing the characters of Theatrical Tendencies’ The Little Dog Laughed, which opened Friday at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center. Rising star Mitchell (David J. Franz) and his cutthroat agent Diane (Allie Beckmann) think they’re on their way to the top. She’s managed to bag the role for Mitchell that will make his career and thrust them both into the limelight. Friends-with-benefits Alex (Nathanael Press) and Ellen (Karissa Lade) aren’t quite far enough along to have an endgame in sight, but they think what they’ve got is a good start.
A classic Hollywood meet-cute changes everything. Mitchell’s drunk. Alex is a rent boy. They’re both gay — and frantically unwilling to admit it to themselves.
The play’s first act is a fairy tale, as Mitchell and Alex slowly draw closer. The show occasionally goes a bit over-the-top, as when sappy music starts to play over scenes of emotional bliss or when they act out the ultimate cliché: Diane walking in on them right when they’ve gotten each other undressed. But director Mark E. Schuster and his cast make it work, as the bring some earnest hope into play amid some of the more outrageous elements.
The castle crumbles after intermission. Mitchell starts to become the subject of Hollywood whispers. Act 1 is cute, but the second is real. Heartbreakingly so.
Mitchell faces the greatest conflict for most of the play, and Franz plays him with a bewildered naiveté that works perfectly. Mitchell is so amazed to actually be happy he forgets what the consequences might be. Franz does his best work as his character relearns the hard facts of life.
Press, on the other hand, plays Alex as trying to convince himself that he’s a jaded hustler only in it for the money. Press subtly shows us a softer side, a part of Alex that would give anything to stay in that hotel room forever. But Alex is neither clingy nor co-dependent; he’s more ready than Mitchell to walk away if necessary. He simply hopes he doesn’t have to.
This play’s about more than romance; Diane makes damn sure of that. She’s coarse, cruel, brilliant, blunt, instinctively protective of Mitchell and a total master of the Hollywood machine.
As Beckmann plays her, Diane’s a star. The star, even. The play is as much about her struggle to keep Mitchell and Alex apart as it is about their struggle to stay together. We don’t root for her, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy every quip she fires or Beckmann’s self-righteous and powerful way of carrying herself.
Ellen is on the fringe of the play, more of an obstacle and plot device than a character, but Lade salvages the part. Her non sequiturs are more comic relief than manic digressions.
In a way, what Lade does with her underwritten part is an unintended metaphor for the moral of the story: Do the best you can with the cards you’re dealt. Mitchell and Alex never asked to be gay, or to fall for each other. Diane and Ellen never expected that love to upend their lives. All you can change is the direction you go next — if you have the courage to give up a happy ending for happiness.
Theatrical Tendencies’ production of The Little Dog Laughed runs through Oct. 22 at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center, 703 S. 2nd St. Tickets are $20 general admission, $17 for seniors, and $12 for students. For more information, visit their website or call (414) 755-2700.