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Friday, August 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 75.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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The Little Dog Laughed by Strollers Theatre disappoints
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Credit:Jonathan Miner

Douglas Carter Beane's caustic comedy The Little Dog Laughed lifts its leg on the fire hydrant that is Hollywood, dousing that narcissistic never-never land with a well-deserved dose of reality. Sadly, Strollers Theatre's production, currently playing at the Bartell, has turned a comical canine into a hapless hound that is barking up the wrong tree.

The responsibility for this unfortunate state of affairs rests squarely on the shoulders of director David Lawver, who has done a great disservice to his well-intentioned cast and to a script that brims with insightful observations and trenchant wit.

The play, which was nominated for a Best Play Tony Award in 2007, appears at first blush to be tamper-proof. A fast-rising young movie star is up for the role of a lifetime in the film adaptation of a successful stage play. His über-agent is relentless in her determination to see her client make the legendary "A" list. Mix in a romantic triangle that involves the star, a sexually confused rent boy and a neurotic party girl with her own damaging secret, and you would expect to have a recipe that can't fail. But you'd be wrong.

This is not to say there aren't good things to be had from this production. Erin S. Baal is eminently enjoyable as Diane, an ambitious Beelzebub in Blahniks whose cynicism barely masks her desperation for success. Baal is too agreeably Midwestern and lacks the abrasive qualities of a native New Yorker (she needs to put a little more devil in her Prada), but it is the best performance of the night.

Baal also has the lion's share of the play's most quotable lines. She wonders, for instance, if it's a good idea for Mitchell, her client, to escort his own mother to an awards ceremony "so that no one will know he's gay." When she makes the mordant observation that acting is "the pretty lady putting on a fake nose and winning an Oscar" you have to wonder if this thinly disguised jab at Nicole Kidman is a clue to the real-life identity of Mitchell, given the rampant speculation about a certain Hollywood heartthrob.

If that's the case, Joshua Derek Epstein as Mitchell never makes the connection. He neither looks nor acts like an egotistical movie star, and his terrible sense of timing, as he walks obliviously through a succession of laugh lines, only diminishes what little likeability he has. Apart from one terrifically snappy scene at a restaurant with Baal, Epstein is barely distinguishable from the bland furniture in his featureless hotel room.

It is in this room where Mitchell meets and ultimately falls in love with Alex, a male hooker played with painful awkwardness by Jay Gabel. Rarely does one see an actor as desperately ill-at-ease as this unfortunate young man. In spite of his natural charm and energy Gabel injects no realism into his characterization, and Lawver is shamefully at fault for this. A director has a responsibility, indeed an obligation, to coach inexperienced actors who are so obviously out of their emotional depth. Instead, Lawver unconscionably leaves his young charge twisting, both literally and figuratively, in the wind.

The most egregious example of this is during the excruciatingly protracted and totally gratuitous nude scene. The embarrassment arises, not because the actors are naked, but because they are so clearly uncomfortable and so utterly devoid of any attraction towards each other.

This lack of authenticity spills over into Alex's relationship with his putative girlfriend Ellen (Jessica Warpula). The complete absence of any spark between them renders the critical event that spurs the clever dénouement almost meaningless. And it's a waste of Warpula's otherwise solid performance as she gradually reveals herself from beneath layers of brittle vulnerability and bittersweet comedy.

With such a good script and excellent technical work from the talented production crew, this should be a much more enjoyable evening. This show and these actors deserve better treatment than they get. The sad truth is that where this particular puppy is concerned, Lawver has screwed the pooch.

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