The Little Dog Laughed (Santa Rosa)
I can understand some audience members’ confusion at the intermission of a recent performance of SRT’s The Little Dog Laughed. Ostensibly publicized as a riotous comedy of manners and expecting as much, they found themselves instead attending a rumination on the compromises we make in life, whether for love, art, or ‘success’ and the deceptions we foist on each other and ourselves to achieve those goals. They were also probably not expecting the nudity or seriously intense simulated sex scenes. The end result was a theatre noticeably emptier after intermission than before, which is a shame because it may discourage SRT from thinking out of the box for future programs and giving their company members the opportunity to challenge themselves (and audiences) with productions outside the boundaries of “audience pleasing” musicals and comedies.
Originally produced off-Broadway in 2006, the Douglas Carter Beane-scripted show soon ended up with a Broadway run, a couple of Tony nominations and one win. It’s a four-character piece centered on Mitchell (Justin Genna), a closeted actor with a chance at a career-making role, and his agent Diane (Alexa Erbach) a whirling dervish of neuroses who’ll stop at nothing at making Mitchell (and herself) a success. Mitchell complicates things by falling for rent boy Alex (David Miller) who ends up falling for Mitchell, which leaves Alex in somewhat of a lurch with his girlfriend (Makenzie Morgan Gomez). The show’s resolution is a rather bleak one, with everyone more-or-less getting what they want in life, though not quite how they expected to get it and not without significant costs.
The bleakness of the ending may dull your appreciation for the comedic moments beforehand, and Beane’s script does have some wicked humor of the dark and biting variety in it. Most of it is delivered via Diane, and while Ms. Erbach gives a gusto-filled performance, this is the one role in this show that demands a more seasoned performer. You get used to seeing twenty-somethings playing forty or fifty or sixty-somethings in college productions, but it’s a little easier to give them some leeway in large scale musicals or comedies – not so much in intimate dramas like this. The other characters are all within the actors’ actual age range, so unfortunately it’s Ms. Erbach’s performance that screams “ACTING!” from the stage.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Justin Genna, who gives a devastatingly honest and genuine performance as the conflicted Mitchell. His internal and external struggles are well-played with a naturalism that made the character’s battle for his soul palpable. His (and Mr. Miller’s) commitment to the characters’ physicality is admirable. Director Travis Kendrick and the actors handle the afore-mentioned intense sexual scenes in a non-gratuitous manner and make them as clear an expression of pent-up sexual and emotional frustration as I’ve seen on a local stage.
The Newman Auditorium lends itself to a show of this size and director Kendrick utilizes the space well. Employing a single set (by Joe Klug) that actually represents multiple locales, Kendrick transitions between the locales via lighting (by Theo Bridant) and movement and keeps the action flowing well. He has Mr. Miller and Ms. Gomez play one scene almost in the laps of the audience in the front row, and kudos to those actors for the concentration required to pull that off.
My concentration was lost when the show committed one of the worst (and most easily avoided) of all theatrical cardinal sins. The play is set in New York City and Los Angeles, yet in a very dramatic scene where Mitchell is reading what is being written about him in the press he pulls up a copy of… a clearly identifiable Sunday section of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat – a minor prop flub for some, but something guaranteed to cause my eyes to roll to the back of my head. Small details matter.
The Little Dog Laughed is a very a-typical SRT show. That’s a good thing. You won’t leave the theater humming a classic Broadway tune or chuckling over a favorite comedic bit. Oh, a line or two may stick with you – “Truth has its consequences.” stuck with me – but it’s the performance of Mr. Genna that remained with me for some time afterwards. It’s good to be reminded of the educational component of SRT and that seeing and supporting young talent as they develop and excel is an end in itself.
With that in mind, give this show a chance. A perfect show it is not, but it’s encouraging to see SRT zig from the usual zag for a change.
The Little Dog Laughed
presented by the Santa Rosa Junior College Summer Repertory Theatre
plays in rep through August 7
Santa Rosa Junior College
1501 Mendocino Ave
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Photos by SRT/Tom Chown