When he wrote The Little Dog Laughed four years ago, Douglas Carter Beane was going for glib. In the case of one role, he got perfection instead. Kelly Iversen's turn as Ellen in the current Diversionary Theatre entry is the best local performance of 2009 to date, a fluke in the convergence of the real and the ideal. Iversen's histrionics and physical stature could not be more compatible—as for Beane, he wrote this role for her, and he didn't even know it. Absolutely. Sen-sational. Stuff.
But Iversen's brilliance stands out way too far in an already thin story. In fact, this cast overall is far stronger than the script, leaving the presentation with a top-heavy feel. If character studies drive your theater, you'll have found a home here. The problem is that the front door to that home is wide open, and the result is a somewhat windblown tale. The play's “little dog” is actually each of us—only this time, we're not getting our giggles from a cow's jump over the moon so much as an equally unlikely gay encounter. And if the dog were a pit-bull, Diane (an excellent Karson St. John) would be his human counterpart. She's the bombastic bitch of an agent to Mitchell (Brian Mackey), who's on the verge of movie stardom as Diane covetously clears his path. Diane bristles when her gay-curious client hooks up with male prostitute Alex (Bryan Bertone); the latter poses a serious threat to Mitch's career (or so Diane thinks) should Mitch's gay dalliances come to light. The scramble to create a public front is on, and it surfaces with Mitch's marriage to Alex's pregnant girlfriend Ellen (Iversen).
The Hollywood media machine keeps wayward stars like Mitch safe and warm, and the play wonders if that's preferable to public scrutiny of such “sins.” In the end, the question doesn't seem particularly interesting, especially amid Beane's superficial treatment. We never really get the idea that Alex sees that much in Mitch, even as he enters and re-enters Mitch's life; Mitch has nothing going for him but his star power, leaving Alex (who, presumably, has serviced his share of far more interesting guys) unconvincing in his persistence. As for Mitchell, Mackey cuts a fairly uninteresting figure; then again, anybody would in so one-dimensional a role.
But, oh, for Iversen! Ellen's cacophonous speech and stationary expression are only the tip of the iceberg that is her neediness; Iversen's due diligence takes Ellen the rest of the way. The world clearly owes Ellen a living, as she tells it—but Iversen colors Ellen's resentment with a healthy dose of faux hipness, and the result is not to be believed.This show has personality (aided ably by Chris Renda's lights), and director Robert Barry Fleming doles out that personality in the right proportions—the performances are cadenced and self-assured. But cadence and self-assurance are only two elements in a pesky thing called raison d'etre, and in this entry, that latter trait is missing more often than not. I recommend this Little Dog, but except for Iversen's amazing performance, I'm not exactly wagging my tail.This review is based on the matinée performance of May 10. The Little Dog Laughed runs through May 31 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. $29-$33. 619-220-0097, www.diversionary.org.Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.