By MARTY CLEAR
TAMPA — Virtually every scene in the Stageworks production of The Little Dog Laughed works wonders, and each in a different way.
Some scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, packed with playwright Douglas Carter Beane's crisp and clever dialogue. Some are poignant, even heartbreaking, as likable and well-drawn characters come within arm's reach of lifelong happiness until nefarious forces interfere. Some delight with Beane's sharp social satire and his sly toying with theater conventions. Others are beautifully tender, insightful, provocative, shocking and unsettling.
But overall, the play's impact is oddly blunted. It's as if each scene pulls you in a different emotional direction, but the net effect of all those pulls leaves you standing pretty much where you started.
The play had very successful, and very acclaimed, off-Broadway and Broadway runs a few years back. The New York Times raved that it marked the return of the comedy of manners.
The story revolves around a closeted movie star (played by Matt Lunsford), his heartless and conniving manager (Julie Rowe), and a "rent boy" the movie star hires and then falls for. It evolves into a look at Hollywood hypocrisy — well-worked but still fertile ground for drama and comedy.
The production has enough effective elements to recommend it. But because of the success of each scene, and because of the presence of Rowe and Lunsford, two of the best actors in the area, and director Karla Hartley, one of the best theater people in virtually everything she does, you expect more.
One problem is Rowe's highly stylized and intentionally exaggerated performance. Rowe is hilarious, and almost all the many laughs in the show come from her. But the other three characters (besides the movie star and the hustler played by Nick Horan, there's the hustler's friend-with-benefits, played ably by Mary Jordan) are very naturalistic. Rowe's deliberately over-the-top performance simply seems at odds with the overall feel of the production.
All the acting is strong, but Horan, a University of South Florida student in his first Stageworks production, offers an especially deep and convincing portrayal of the most intriguing and sympathetic character.
Also worth noting is a gorgeous set by Scott Cooper highlighted by abstractions of a New York City skyline and some neat little surprises.
Given the area's history of reactionary attitudes to homosexuality, and to nudity in the performing arts, it was encouraging that Stageworks had the guts to stage the show, which includes full male nudity and a sim- ulated sex act. Even more encouraging was that Lunsford and Horan handled the emotionally difficult scene ably (it quickly shifts from a romantic scene into a thoroughly and hilariously comic one), and that the audience at Sunday's matinee didn't react in any way the playwright and director didn't intend. There were no gasps or shocked whispers, and virtually everyone returned after intermission and applauded heartily at play's end.
Marty Clear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.