Thursday, January 11, 2007
By Josh R
Scenery-chewing, as a spectator sport, is not for the faint of heart. When a performer is happily engaged in tearing up the stage, chompers grinding away as if harnessed to a turbine engine, it’s not hard to imagine how the tourists in Jurassic Park must have felt when those big lizards came a-chargin’ out from behind the security fence. It makes even more strenuous demands on the one who’s doing the gnashing — some of these stately Broadway houses have stood for more than a century, and they’re not made of the kind of stuff that can be easily demolished in a mere 2½ hours. Which is to say that, at some point, someone must send a copy of Julie White’s dental X-rays along to the Smithsonian, to be exhibited alongside other scientific wonders of the modern age like the Hope Diamond and the Wright Brothers’ biplane. It is inconceivable that these pearly whites are made of anything so brittle as calcium and phosphorus — the average tyrannosaurus rex can’t even begin to match her in terms of dentural stamina. She’s practically a new genus of dinosaur — introducing Diva Maximus!
A veteran of the New York Stage and sometime muse of playwright Theresa Rebeck, White may be best known to television audiences for her scene-stealing turn on HBO's Six Feet Under as Mitzi Dalton-Huntley, the villainous corporate hatchet woman trying to buy out Fisher & Sons Funeral Home. It’s a performance which, in retrospect, would appear to have been an exercise in restraint on the actress’s part. In Scott Ellis’ production of The Little Dog Laughed, currently playing at Broadway’s Cort Theatre through Feb. 18, White gives the most flamboyant display of unabashed scenery-chewing to be seen…well, perhaps ever. By the evening’s conclusion, the stage is in tatters — hell, entire chunks of the proscenium arch are missing — but Diva Maximus appears to be sated, with the self-satisfied look of a cat who’s been licking the cream. If the audience hasn’t been nourished to the same extent, it’s still hard not to take pleasure in White’s gleeful enactment of this demolition derby.
While Douglas Carter Beane’s wickedly funny dialogue gives Maximus plenty to sink her teeth into, the play itself doesn’t have much to offer in terms of actual substance. White’s Diane is a Hollywood agent determined, at all costs, to make an A-List star of her prize client, the wholesomely appealing Mitchell Green (Tom Everett Scott). Unfortunately, Mitchell suffers from, as Diane sums it up, “a slight, unfortunate case of recurring homosexuality.” While Diane is in Los Angeles, ruthlessly piecing together a movie deal that will take Mitchell to the next level — ironically, he’ll be playing the role of a gay man — her client has fallen hard for Alex (Johnny Galecki), a male prostitute he picked up in New York. As you can imagine, Diane is none too pleased by this development — the prospect of any activity of the non-hetero variety capsizing Mitchell’s career sends her careening into red alert mode. Alex, who like Mitchell seems to be straddling the fence in terms of his sexual identity, keeps a girlfriend on the side, a highly strung party girl named Ellen (Ari Graynor). She, as it turns out, has a bombshell to drop that will affect the future of all the other character’s relationships; it naturally falls to Diane to clean up the mess, which she does in brutally efficient fashion, thus ensuring everyone’s happiness — or, at least, the outward appearance of it (which, in Hollywood, is just as good as the real thing).
If there isn’t very much depth to the proceedings, the playwright still seems to be having a lot of fun at the expense of the world he’s satirizing. His targets are easy ones — soulless Hollywood agents and closeted movie stars — but the dialogue is funny and clever enough to make you forgive the absence of any fresh ideas. Shallowness has its own particular kind of entertainment value — it’s the reason why the E! television network exists — and The Little Dog Laughed gets by on its sharp sense of humor and eagerness to please (a more appropriate title might have been Night of a Thousand Punchlines). The women characters have been conceived as larger-than-life camp icons — the kind that were made to be played by female impersonators — and get all the juiciest lines. Even though, as Diane insists, all gay men “hate women, unless they’re in black and white movies suffering magnificently,” it’s clear that Beane is in thrall to these fabulous bitch goddesses and revels in their outrageousness. The male characters are noticeably weaker, making it more difficult to be invested in their fates — although credit should be given to both Scott and Galecki, who while not the world’s most dynamic stage performers, do well by their roles. Ari Graynor, whom sharp-eyed Sopranos fans may recognize as Meadow’s mentally unstable college roommate, tries a little too hard to imitate White’s performance style — understandable given how effortlessly Diane commandeers the audience’s attention, but an unwise choice given that Ellen needs to come across as a more sympathetic character than she ultimately does.
It’s White who dominates the evening, although the brazenness of her approach takes some getting used to. As written, the character of Diane plays like a shrill cartoon, and the actress doesn’t really attempt to steer away from those origins. Her over-the-top performance style, blissfully unencumbered by anything remotely resembling subtlety, occasionally seems writ too large for the stage to contain it — even from the middle of the mezzanine, which is where I was sitting. But once you adjust to her delivery — which involves a great deal of shrieking — you can lean back in your seat and enjoy the all-out shamelessness of the character and the brio of the actress who is playing her. Mincing around the stage in stiletto pumps and firing off epigrams at the rapid-fire pace of a champion Ping Pong player on an adrenaline high, White turns the stage into her own personal stomping ground — and each article of scenery, be it of the edible or non-edible variety, is devoured with equal relish and aplomb. You can’t blame her, given the range of goodies she’s been given to feast on. Diane is a one-dimensional character, and while White doesn’t quite succeed in making her more than that, she doesn’t really have to. The actress is clearly having the time of her life, and as long as you don’t make any sudden moves - bear in mind what happened in Jurassic Park — you’ll have a ridiculous amount of fun witnessing the wonderfully grotesque spectacle of Diva Maximus munching on the rafters.