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Self discovery does not equal happily ever after. This is the bitter pill served up in Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed, in which heartache lies not in life's random unfairness, but in the willful choices made by people in a position to hurt each other. As directed by Joe Bailey, this Who Wants Cake? production is an emotionally bloody work wrapped up in the tenderest of love stories.

Providing the framework of the play is Diane (Suzan M. Jacokes), Hollywood agent to rising star Mitchell (Vince Kelley). Diane knows her client is gay, even when he isn't fully ready to admit it; she also knows how quickly and completely that fact would hobble his film career. Mitchell's awakening comes in the form of Alex (Matthew Turner Shelton), a straight-identifying rent boy summoned to the wasted actor's New York hotel room. The first-act scenes are permeated by nervous timidity, a reflection of Kelley's believably pained reluctance and half-hearted denial, as the men accept by halting degrees their deep emotional and physical attraction. Caustic, comic Jacokes dismissively presides over these developments, as Diane exhibits her skills as narrator, talent wrangler, sharklike negotiator, and almost-soulless problem solver.

The consequences of Mitchell and Alex's actions creep in during the second act, especially Alex's poor handling of his relationship with best friend and sort-of girlfriend Ellen (Crystal Rhoney). At first an incidental character, Ellen barges into the fore of the narrative through a number of arresting monologues, which Rhoney handles with the helplessness of a woman who knows she holds no claim over the man she loves. Although Alex realizes how he is hurting Ellen, he can offer only evasive omission, with apologetic Shelton clearly showing the character's regret; in stark contrast, the easy rapport between Shelton and Kelley starts to feel perfect and true. Inevitably, however, the characters' lives further intersect in tragic ways, leading Diane to seamlessly orchestrate a resolution the likes of which I never anticipated.

Beane's characters frequently break the fourth wall, moving easily from monologues to highly stylized narrated scenes to natural interactions; lighting design by Bailey and Joe Plambeck gives an assist by lending a confessional style when the audience is addressed directly. The dark-toned set by Michael Reeves features a well-planned platform bed that minimizes obstructions. Costumes, designed by Kelley, not only look natural but are easily donned and shed, a key requirement for avoiding awkward wardrobe-malfunction pauses in a play filled with dressing and undressing.

The Little Dog Laughed cannot be described simply as a coming-out story; indeed, most of the play is concerned with staying well in. Themes of sex and sexuality are dealt with honestly, which includes some sexual activity, brief nudity, and several frank descriptions of sex gay and straight, but the tone is more often wistful than sultry. This production vaults from soul searching and realization into the harsh reality of deciding how to live the rest of one's life in light of such discovery, as well as the heavy consequences therein.


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