Herald Theatre
Oct 24-Nov 15 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

HOLLYWOOD, as we all know, is corrupt, seething with the power-hungry, the talentless, the beautiful cardboard pin-ups. The Little Dog Laughed makes no attempt to dissuade us of that impression. But this is the kind of play that creeps into your pants and under your skin, until two hours of laughing later, you realise that far from being shallow, this is a very clever play.

This is the New Zealand premiere of Douglas Carter Beane’s Tony Award-nominated play, and fairly snapping with fiendish dialogue. The four-strong cast do well to deliver the fast-paced jokes layered with plenty of visual gags. Timing is everything, and everything happens.

The basic premise is this: Diane (Alison Bruce) is a bitchy, driven Hollywood agent who will let nothing stand in the way of her own ascendancy, not even her star client, Mitchell (Paolo Rotondo), a sweet, ‘boy-next-door’ type who has what Diane terms a “slight recurring case of homosexuality”. This mild flaw, if it becomes too well-known outside of “the business”, might ruin Diane’s chances of getting their big break. Diane suffers Mitchell’s frequent relapses on the understanding that when it comes to showbusiness, Mitchell will toe the line. Enter Alex (Charlie McDermott), a cute lad who makes his living by going down on rich old men then goes home to his even cuter squeeze Ellen (Sophie Henderson), who in turn makes her living by acting as arm candy for rich old men. There’s the setup – sound familiar? What happens next is predictably Hollywood, at first. But it’s how it’s done that’s stylish, and style is all that matters.

In a standout performance, Charlie McDermott brings soul as well as sexiness to the role of rent boy Alex. It’s no coincidence that Beane chooses to start his play with a hilarious recounting of the plot of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Alex is every bit as waifish, flawed and lovable as Hepburn’s Holly. In a way he is the real hero of the piece, the counterbalance to the knowingly shallow Diane. McDermott gives a believable portrayal of Alex falling for Rotondo’s bumbling, charmingly tousled Mitchell. And if you only came to see the play because of those raunchy billboards featuring topless men – well, you won’t be disappointed. But sex isn’t everything. In a happy role reversal, the women get to keep their clothes on, and they get the best lines. They also get to kick the men around. Diane hogs the clever one-liners, delivered with brusque efficiency by Bruce, while Ellen, the least developed character, has nonetheless some lovely vignettes to impart, done in sweetly innocent style by Henderson. Some of the jokes were lost in the laughter, but that’s a very small point.

If you’ll allow me my moment of shallowness, I’d now like to express my utter envy of the outfits worn by the cast. Costumed by Elizabeth Whiting with clothes supplied by Huffer, Caroline Church and Satori, shoes by Sarah Riley, handbags by (wait for it) designer handbag hire company Arm Candy and bling by Swarovski, the play was a visual delight (though I was there for the acting of course). Henderson in particular looked stunning in her figure-hugging, long leg-flashing dresses. I do hope she worked out for the role or I’ll puke in disgust.

The omnipresent John Verryt did the set design and, soul of simplicity that he is, chose to put the bed centre stage. It is, after all, where much of the action takes place. Did I say sex isn’t everything? A ‘suspended’ walkway leading to and from the bed, cushioned bench and small stage areas either side, complete the set and perfectly facilitate the often complex multiple storylines happening at the same time on stage. Lighting by Jeremy Fern was similarly on the money.

In a night of standout elements, the best thing about the play (in my opinion) was its tremendously clever script. It’s highly self-referential; but even if you don’t understand all the in-jokes, you’ll keep laughing. Like one of those origami fortune tellers the play kept popping out new surprises, folding in on itself, making self-solving puzzles. A play is mentioned early on in the play; as the characters keep talking about the plot you realize that that play they’re talking about is, in fact, the play you’re watching. There’s references, some of them subtle, to many old Hollywood classics and I got the impression that Beane, for all his relentless satirizing of the Hollywood movie machine, is at heart a sentimentalist. There’s also an incorporation of some classic plot devices including the last-minute twist and the point of no return; and I’m not sure if anyone will agree with me, but there was more than a touch of Casablanca at the end.

For me, the message of the play, if there needed to be one, is that we all choose whether to be real or not, then take the consequences. The play was all about appearance versus deception, and for all its smartmouthed window dressing, it had a heart of gold. At the end of the night the only thing left that’s real is the audience, and a delighted audience it was on the opening night.

And that’s all I’m going to say. Try as I might, there’s very little to fault with this play. It’s funny, it’s sassy, it’s warm and it’s true, and the acting and direction are as tight as we’ve come to expect with Silo. Go and see it or you’ll regret it.