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The Little Dog Laughed appeared two years ago on Broadway to great acclaim, and was heralded as a tight and enthralling comedic endeavor and described as a play about the ills—and wonders—of the entertainment industry. It is undeniably an impeccably written show filled with the kind of lines that simply require straight-faced genuine delivery to illicit laughter. But often, it is the kind of laughter that comes when we recognize an important and uncomfortable truth, not necessarily something outright funny. With each actor fully utilizing the richness of these moments, the production of the Little Dog Laughed at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in Cape Cod, directed by Daisy Walker, seemed to reveal as much about basic human nature as it did about the entertainment business.
The play, by Douglas Carter Beane, features cutthroat agent Diane, played with passion, enthusiasm and myopic devotion by Elizabeth Atkeson, who fears her client, rising star Mitchell, will destroy his career by failing to hide his “recurring case of homosexuality.” While in New York for an award’s ceremony, Mitchell becomes romantically involved with a young male prostitute, Alex, who has a sort-of girlfriend, Ellen (Stacy Fischer) but is, in reality, grappling with his own sexuality and falling very hard for Mitchell.
Much has changed politically and socially since the play first appeared on Broadway in 2006, and for that reason, Diane’s heartless insistence that homosexuality is a career-breaker is even more startling. Her character is also a lesbian, and her point of view is made all the more chilling because of Atkeson’s impeccable commitment to the whole truth of her role. Her seamless transitions between a woman who grasps the nuances of human nature better than Jung and power-hungry business without the faintest concern for another human provide the greatest elements of humor in the role. She never once tries to play funny, and is thus captivating.
As Mitchell, Robert Kropf, is so unassuming and charmingly tentative that we almost forget that he, and his character, are actors. His deliberations and waffling make it hard to judge him and make the moments when he jumps into “actor-mode” all the more chilling. The irony is that is Mitchell’s true self is as single-mindedly self-absorbed as Diane’s; his human moments are folly. He’s mirrored by David Nelson as Alex, who enters the stage smooth and aloof, and literally unfolds on a clear, visible and enveloping trajectory throughout the play.
Nelson’s ability to represent these changes both physically and vocally provides the play’s clearest arc, pushing him into the role of main protagonist by the end. He serves as perfect complement as Atkeson, who pulls the audience into her tornado of determination but refuses to budge for anyone or anything. Ultimately, her commitment, as misguided as it is, makes her the only character with integrity.
Under Walker’s direction, all actors make great use of the sleek, modern set, designed by Kevin Judge, which represents a hotel room, restaurants, offices, subways and a grungy apartment in Williamsburg. The hotel room is the featured section, and is done with perfect realism, down the to mini bar. Its vitality makes is easier to believe that two simple stairs downstage represent a subway car. Atkeson’s mobile phone headset, and her fierce concentration make us willing to believe she is New York, LA, on a side walk or a boardroom without much questioning. Overall, Walker has pulled together a remarkably tight piece of regional theater.
And perhaps the intimacy of the setting allowed for even more exploration of the plays nuances. It was consistently funny, but held sadness and sacrifice waiting in the wings at all times. The show’s ability to carry such complexity represents great achievement, commitment and talent from all involved.
African music, both traditional and contemporary, seems to be having a moment this summer in New York City. Artists like Oumou Sanger, Rokia Traore, Asa, Amadou and Mariam, and Tinariwen have enlightened ears with stunning cultural cadences. And this past week while ivy leaguers Vampire Weekend emulated West African guitars for rain-soaked teens at All Points West, virtuosos Béla Fleck and Toumani Diabaté played to a decidedly more traditional, and erudite, crowd. They came not only for the hour of acoustic duets between Fleck’s banjo and Diabaté’s kora, but also to view Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary (directed by Fleck’s half-brother Sascha Paladino) about Fleck’s 2005 journey to Africa tracing the banjo’s musical roots.
On the third day, Wanderlust rocked. The Sunday line-up offered a tasty array of alternative bands that generally seemed pleased to perform in such a beautiful and natural setting. The sun shone more mercifully than it had on the previous day at the mountainous Squaw Value resort near Lake Tahoe, and the gorgeous weather helped lift everyone’s spirits.
The Honey Brothers opened the Sunday activities around 12:30 pm with a mix of everything from goofy ukulele and banjo pop tunes to more serious, angular electric guitar-based music. The acting fame of drummer Adrian Grenier (HBO’s Entourage) drew many people to attend the day’s first show, but the band transcended its novelty act status through the strength of its performance.
The combination of silly songs and powerful rock kept the crowd intrigued, especially when ex-Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer joined the group on a wacked out performance of Queen’s “We are the Champions”. Palmer loudly reached for notes she couldn’t quite hit but wouldn’t stop trying to in a pretense of desperation as the band smiled and played.
Palmer’s solo set provided the highlight of the festival. She sang many of her best known compositions, including “Coin-Operated Boy” and “House That I Grew Up In”, as well as inspired covers. She opened with a simple and lovely version of Bright Eyes’ “Lua”, and accompanied herself on ukulele while her keyboards went through emergency repair. She later offered a stately version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” that showcased the grand melodrama of the lyrics and piano music.
Palmer engaged the crowd with between song patter as well as introducing her material to those who might not be familiar with her work. She commented on the pleasure of playing in front of a mountain and told stories about what she had been up to lately, which lead to a discussion of Comic-Con and Neil Gaiman. She and Gaiman had recently collaborated on a project, and she sang a somewhat bawdy tune they had written together. She ended her set in Pete Townsend like fashion by smashing her bench across the keyboards.
Maybe the problem was following such an incredible talent, or maybe it was because the band’s cellist didn’t make the plane, but the Mates of State who followed Palmer seemed to phone in its performance. Many in the crowd dispersed to get beers, go swimming in the nearby pond, or just grab some shade during the band’s set. The energy level quickly rose when Broken Social Scene hit the stage. Even before the band officially started playing, singer/guitarist Kevin Drew warned the crowd that, “This is gonna be a punk rock show.” The band rocked on all cylinders.
Singer Lisa Lobsinger joined the collective for several tunes, including a hot version of “Fire-Eyed Boy”. However, it was Drew that remained the center of attention. He told the crowd to engage in “scream therapy” and said, “It’s wonderful therapy, just like yoga” and counted to three to be hit by a loud cry in response. The yoga practitioners in the crowd weren’t sure if he was being ironic, but were caught up in the frenzy and joined in. He sincerely told the audience, “Be careful. Be safe. Fight for your right to celebrate and don’t let anyone take it away from you,” before launching into the closing number.
The strange stylings of Andrew Bird came next as he looped himself playing instruments and whistling, and then sang to the rhythms. Bird was burdened by the fact that much of his equipment did not arrive and he had to borrow stuff from Kaki King, Rogue Wave, and Broken Social Scene. In a way, this helped his performance as he became more improvisational and fed on the positive vibrations from the crowd.
Bird performed splendid acoustic fiddle and vocal versions of Delta bluesman Charley Patton’s “Some of These Days” and the old spiritual “Churnin’ Burnin’”. Bird earnestly told the audience, “This is one of the nicest festivals I have ever played,” and it was clear he was sincere.
The Austin band Spoon closed the festival, but rather than mellow out the crowd, the group got everybody re-energized. Spoon played recent favorites, such as “Isla Forever” and “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” as if the group were performing in a sweaty, Texas club on a Saturday night instead of a beautiful retreat in the mountains on an early Sunday evening.
The quartet also offered a fast and hard version of Paul Simon’s “Peace Like a River”. The band turned the sad and lonesome tune into a battle cry against the forces that drive one into insomnia and despair. As the show ended, Spoon promised to return again next year if band was invited because the landscape and the audience were so wonderful. As is usually the case when people are having a good time, no one wanted the show to end. The crowd slowly left the venue and descended the mountain with satisfied smiles.