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No Closet, No Return

New local theater group debuts with this smart, if familiar, local premier about Hollywood's homophobia

Shannon Maddox (back to camera) catches Ryan Haase (left) and David Gregory with their pants down.

By John Barry | Posted 7/29/2009

The Little Dog Laughed

By Douglas Carter Beane

Through Aug. 2 at the Mobtown Theater

Hollywood has made big strides toward accepting gay-themed movies, but there's one place where it draws the line. If you're going to show someone coming out of the closet, and you want it to play anywhere but the art houses, you'd better be damned sure he's played by a guy who's dependably straight.

In The Little Dog Laughed, playwright Douglas Carter Beane directs his irreverent and sometimes barbed wit at Hollywood's variation on "don't ask, don't tell." Mitchell (David Gregory) is a young actor with a promising career, who's racking up awards and moving toward the big time as the next George Clooney. There's one big problem, though: He likes guys. In a manner that calls to mind Rock Hudson's early years, a long-suffering lesbian agent, Diane (Shannon Maddox), tries to keep Mitchell's sexual proclivities in the closet by posing as his significant other. As the play opens, Mitchell is dead drunk on a queen-sized bed in a New York hotel, where he and Diane are trying to buy the rights to a new play. He calls Alex (Ryan Haase), a young hustler, who gives blow jobs to pay the rent for himself and his girlfriend, Ellen (Brianna Carter)--she's also a prostitute, catering to lonely straight guys. And instead of the usual quickie, Alex provides companionship. Mitchell contemplates coming out of the closet. And Diane moves in with damage control.

This production is the premier outing for a new, young Baltimore theater company, Teatro 101. Its mission--"to create a viable forum for constructive communication and a cross-pollination throughout global human societies"--is still a work in progress. But this group, largely drawn from Towson's MFA Theater program, is a promising addition to the young theater groups sprouting up around Baltimore. In this risqué drawing-room comedy, Teatro 101 has taken the plunge with confidence and style.

Particular credit is due to set designer Ryan Haase. The set itself--a blue, retro-modern, upscale hotel room that opens out on to the stage with a strange emptiness--suggests the emotional vacuum that Mitchell has found himself sucked into. There's a metal "W" on the wall. It's perfectly placed, but it's just there, decorative but meaningless, because, well, it's perfectly placed. That sense of false stability and carefully designed equilibrium is what Mitchell finds himself struggling against.

Set designers don't often double as actors, but Haase also offers an effective performance as Alex, the hustler who walks into Mitchell's hotel room. Haase's character is effortlessly, disarmingly honest. Gregory, meanwhile, delivers a forceful and confident performance as the rising star who finds himself a little shocked--and then attracted--by that honesty. From the moment when he climbs out of his alcoholic stupor in the opening scene, Gregory's character maintains a hypocritical charm that carries him through a plotline which, frankly, goes nowhere you didn't expect it to.

Beane is decidedly less interested in his female characters and, despite good efforts by both actresses, it shows. As the fast-talking, deal-making Diane, Maddox opens strong. In an interesting prelude, Diane flirts with the possibility that Mitchell might actually be in love with her. But despite Maddox's energized performance, Beane lets Diane degenerate into a cookie-cutter Hollywood agent. Beane's sympathies toward Ellen--the one character who stays solidly in the heterosexual camp--seem entirely absent. Carter does her best as the cute, streetwalking hustler, but Ellen is little more than a foil for Alex to contend with as his relationship with Mitchell develops.

Director Joseph Ritsch negotiates this comedy with quickly paced confidence, and he doesn't let the hotel room confine the actors. Playwright Beane, however, is a little less successful. Beane's got a quick wit and a sharp eye for hypocrisy, but the out-of-closet scenario is quickly becoming a genre in its own right, and Beane adheres rigidly to the formula. When he's irreverently deconstructing the Hollywood status quo, Beane is at his best. When he's declaiming on the virtues of sexual self-discovery, he's preaching to the converted. It's tough to disagree with the points he's making, but you've heard it all before.

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