The exquisitely jaded Diane (Denise Poirier) describes her world as one in which Cobb salads are special-ordered with the intricacy and significance of Buddhist mandalas. Here "the beauty quotient is exceedingly high," but to request someone's word is like asking "a whore for her cherry." That's all to say that Diane's world is Hollywood. She savages her living as the agent of rising leading-man Mitchell (Paul Drinan), who suffers rather inconveniently from, as she puts it, "a slight recurring case of homosexuality." Here, that's bad for business, as Diane -- a lesbian herself -- knows all too well. So when Mitch, on a business trip to New York, starts cozying up regularly with a young hustler named Alex (Ian Carlsen), Diane enters red-alert mode, and Alex's sometime girlfriend, Ellen (Casey Turner) isn't thrilled, either. Between the four of them, there results a sort of quadrilateral clusterfuck of love, lust, and career capital, in Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed, Good Theater's most titillating production yet, under the direction of Brian P. Allen.
Perhaps the most important thing to be said about this Little Dog, a play that's almost entirely character-driven, is that Allen has cherry-picked a dream cast. Who but Poirier to portray the imperious, caustic, and wickedly glib Diane? Drinan's male-model looks and Everyman affability give Mitch sympathetic charm, and Carlsen's endearing sensuality, as the man who rouses Mitch's finer feelings, is positively radiant. Finally, Turner is not just deliciously acerbic as the stylishly tarted-up Westchester brat Ellen -- she's also adept at suggesting the hurt that spurs her jabs.
Years of life experience separate Ellen from Diane, but Turner and Poirier's characterizations make it easy to see how the younger woman might become as fully and as tragically enameled as the older: As Turner's sarcastic Ellen hardens to slights or to a sense of her powerlessness, we make out what might have been earlier traits of Diane. And despite the older woman's protective armor and her derision for emotion, Poirier lets the facade slip just enough to reveal Diane's tragedy: What she so exactingly mocks in her Hollywood cohorts is what she herself has nevertheless become, and -- worse -- no one is more aware of this than she is.
Though it's in the snide insider snark of Diane and Ellen that Beane's writing is best (the script sometimes feels a bit too mushy when Alex and Mitch venture into the softer, often more vague language of affection), Carlsen and Drinan do a remarkable job making the romance glow. The candor and pleasure they bring to the men's infatuation, and the contrast they create against so much affectation elsewhere, is beautiful and intoxicating. As Mitch shyly warms to the gamine hustler in his hotel room, Drinan grows becomingly boyish, even rosy; he grins, rocks, nods adorably with his chin. And as for Alex: Frankly, I could spend two and half hours watching Carlsen watch paint dry. His physical charisma never fails to astound me afresh; in this show, he brings to his poise a tenderness and a receptivity that make Mitch's puppy-dogging entirely understandable. And when, in the play's hottest scene, Alex and Mitch urgently reach for each other and let (all!) their clothes fall away, Carlsen and Drinan convey not just a convincing and very watchable lust, but also -- and even more impressively -- genuine affection.
Unfortunately, affection won't be much of a commodity for Mitch if he chooses to live in Diane's world, a business that prizes lustrous but ultimately conventional surfaces. It's a point Beane's dark script rather jarringly drives home: While Hollywood -- and, perhaps, popular culture itself -- might indulge nuance galore in the ingredients of starlets' salads, it doesn't do many special orders on love.
Megan Grumbling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED | by Douglas Carter Beane | Directed by Brian P. Allen | Produced by the Good Theater, at the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, in Portland | through October 11 | 207.885.5883