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18 Apr 2015

Brilliant Contrasts: Desert Rose Teams With the Author of 'To Wong Foo' to Mount a Hilarious Production

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Joey English and John Ferrare star in Desert Rose's The Little Dog Laughed. Joey English and John Ferrare star in Desert Rose's The Little Dog Laughed.

Like the little dog, you’re going to laugh—and you’ll love it.

The Desert Rose Playhouse’s new comedy, The Little Dog Laughed, was written by Douglas Carter Beane. He’s not a household name, but perhaps he should be: He’s the genius who crafted the amazing screenplay for To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, in which the late Patrick Swayze rose to new heights of acting skill, playing virtually his entire role in drag and turning in one of the most amazing and finely tuned performances ever.

So you already know you’re in for a comedic experience that combines wit with situational comedy and a cast of unusual characters. This four-person play, perfectly cast and deftly directed by Jim Strait, deals with Hollywood’s legendary but real craziness—though it’s mostly set in New York. The lights come up on a surprisingly bare stage: a rainbow-hued curtain, one chair, two doors and a lone rubber-tree plant.

Enter Joey. Oh, Joey! Miss English, dressed in her signature red wardrobe and with her red hair and enormous centipede eyelashes, catapults us into the play with a sensational monologue. She plays Diane, a lesbian Hollywood agent, and a classic, she is—she’s a product of Rodeo Drive and beauty salons and the horrors of trying to earn a living on the fringes of showbiz. Any actress who complains about no great roles for ladies older than 40 has never met Joey English, because she consistently finds terrific characters, and she’s always busy. In Joey’s Diane, we see an extraordinary combination of brassiness covering vulnerability, bravado hiding terror, and sarcasm shielding damage. Even at her snarkiest and sharkiest, we sense Diane’s bandaged wounds. With her huge comedic gifts and an edgy voice, Joey brings the script’s terrific lines to life, and snaps out some of the funniest lines in the play. Tottering about on her uber-heels, with sequins flashing wildly in Phil Murphy’s lighting, she is perfectly cast in this role as The Powerful Mistress of Hype. She is totally convincing, as her embittered verbal ax falls on such innocent victims as Cobb salads. The first-night audience rewarded nearly every one of her scenes with applause.

And then, surprise! The stage transforms in an instant. A bed rolls out; the lighting shifts; and, pow, we’re in a New York hotel room. We meet the show’s two males—the amazingly consistent John Ferrare (has he ever flubbed a line?) as Mitchell Green, a sleek, California-tanned, rising movie star obsessed with his “image.” He contrasts in every way with Timothy Douglas, playing Alex (or Bryan), an attractive youngster sent over by an escort service. And we’re off to a confusing start, with the movie star being drunk, and the greedy rent boy unsure about what to do with him. As actors, both appear effortless in their easy, seemingly natural relating to each other … and both are impressively fearless about stripping off their clothes. (The banner on the play’s poster warns about nudity and adult situations, so don’t say we didn’t tell you. Maybe now would be a good time to toss in a language warning, too.) Mr. Movie Star is emotionally conflicted about whether or not he is gay … and, it turns out, the male prostitute is as well: Despite multiple sexual experiences daily, he doesn’t “feel” gay. OK …

In fact, Alex has a girlfriend. Say what? Meet Allison Feist as Ellen. She is perfect as a potty-mouthed, hormone-ridden, completely self-absorbed Young Person of Today. Weak Ellen’s best gift seems to be her ability to take remorseless advantage of other people, rather than find her own purpose in life. Her youthful appearance, in every way, provides a stunning contrast to Diane’s artificial glam. Ellen is adrift on life’s surface, and we both sympathize with her and find her amusing at the same time. She is crucial to the plot, so don’t write her off … despite her managing to use every single annoying bit of verbal teen-slang in existence (starring “like” and “you know.” Like … you know).

The dialogue weaves through secrets, lies, truths and retractions, combining trash talk with yearning sincerity, and punching out the caught-you-off-guard humor. (“It’s like a relationship, only it’s enjoyable.”) The script mixes irony with real fears like the terror of being alone or having to fight for your own freedom. We are frequently told that “Diane solves problems,” and as the conflicts and confusion accrue, the characters turn to the agent for solutions. I won’t give away the wonderful twist at the end of the play, though I’ll promise that the writing is utterly masterful, and the resolution is a never-saw-that-coming surprise.

Kudos to the Desert Rose support team who made such a success of this play. We’ve already mentioned the mega-talented director, Jim Strait, whose flawless sense of timing, crystal-clear insights into the characters and lovely sense of stage balance all combine to make this play a delight. Turns out Strait is in charge of the scenery and the sound, too. His husband, Paul Taylor, is the play’s producer, and a steady hand on the wheel, he always is. Phil Murphy’s lighting is, of course, gorgeous; is there anything more fun than a disco ball? Mark Demry’s costumes are most excellent. (Well, there was a briefly hilarious entanglement with a tie belt on a robe.) And Steve Fisher’s stage managing is smooth and sweet, as usual.

It’s the contrasts that make this play brilliant—the playwright’s insights, the director’s right-on choices and the actors’ thoughtful explorations of their roles. New York versus California. Youth versus older. Shrewd versus naïve. Successful versus struggling. Focused versus confused. The multi-faceted result is hugely satisfying, and you will leave the theater smiling.

You’ll laugh … and you’ll love it.

The Little Dog Laughed is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 17, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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