Alela Diane, a Portland, Oregon transplant from Nevada City, California, took the spotlight at a packed Union Hall recently after sets from Melbourne, Australia’s Luluc and Bushwick’s own Sharon Van Etten.
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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.