This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
In another era, Douglas Carter Beane's theatrical baubles could be considered innocuous, if clever, ways for an entire generation to gaze at its navel; but, in our celebrity obsessed age, Beane's plays, which puncture the myths of stardom--only to inflate them again in tidy, sit-com style breaths--can only be seen as forgettable fluff.
Luckily, commercial theater has long depended on a steady diet of forgettable fluff. Musicals provide Broadway with most of that fluff these days, but there used to be a healthy market for straight plays that served as popular entertainment. Most of Neil Simon's work wasn't written to be anthologized in drama textbooks, but his plays were insightful, funny, and for a generation, offered a more entertaining evening than staying home in front of the television.
For most of this Broadway season, Douglas Carter Beane's latest play, The Little Dog Laughed, was the only new comedy playing on the Great White Way. The writing in The Little Dog Laughed isn't far superior to the better shows on network or pay cable, but in contrast to many new plays, it's at least comparable. Beane's comedy is a satire of Hollywood that provides genuine laughs and knowing, behind-the-velvet-ropes titillation. The plot surrounds an agent's attempt to prevent her closeted gay client from playing an openly gay character on-screen because "only perceived straight actors can portray a gay role in a film. It's the pretty lady putting on a fake nose and winning an Oscar."
Needless to say, this is not the stuff of classic drama (perhaps not even a classic episode of Entourage); but comedy, even shameless tabloid comedy, gets points for laughter—and The Little Dog Laughed packs a few big guffaws. Most of these come courtesy of actress Julie White, who plays the ruthless agent). It's career-making turn and when the show inevitably comes to LA, let's hope she comes with it.
The fact that The Little Dog Laughed closed on Sunday, while of little consequence in the grand scheme of theater, it is troubling. If a relatively smart, well-reviewed comedy--that's also tailor-made for the Us Weekly set--can't survive on Broadway; what chance is there for the next Neil Simon?
As Beane's latest play was closing in New York, his earlier play Music from a Sparkling Planet received its Los Angeles premiere courtesy of West Coast Ensemble. Like The Little Dog Laughed, and his 1997 work, As Bees in Honey Drown, Beane's Music from a Sparkling Planet shows the playwright's knack for delightful, long titles and short, pithy one-liners like "there's nothing as reassuring as the past's view of the future." Also, like his other plays, Music from a Sparkling Planet is about the effects of celebrity, focusing on a popular local television personality who becomes "the Delaware Valley's Greta Garbo."
This revival, six years after its off-Broadway run, is hard to dislike. The Louise Nevelson-inspired set is pleasing to the eye and the performers all give beating hearts to Beane's cartoonish characters. The problems with Music from a Sparkling Planet are the same ones that will no doubt plague revivals of The Little Dog Laughed in years to come: a reliance on pop culture references, a serviceable but contrived plot, and ultimately little point beyond "hey, celebrity's a funny thing."
Show-biz plays tend to have early expiration dates, but the new revival of David Mamet's 1988 play Speed-the-Plow is surprisingly fresh. Hollywood would seem to have changed alot in 20 years, but Mamet's insights about the industry--and the men who run it--feel timeless. One expects gravity from Mamet, but this play also offers even more laughs than Beane's comedies--most them courtesy of Greg Germann as a producer who would make quite a match for Julie White's agent. Alicia Silverstone is a disappointment in the role originated by Madonna on Broadway, but Speed-the-Plow is about the boys in the business. Mamet captures their bravado with such precision that his play rises above mere tinseltown trifle and speaks about the dealmaking that goes down in the depths of the American soul.
Speed-the-Plow runs through March 25 at the Geffen Playhouse; Music from a Sparkling Planet plays until April 1 at the Lyric-Hyperion Theater in Silverlake.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.