Douglas Carter Beane's wicked satire The Little Dog Laughed, which the St. Louis Rep is presenting at the Grandel Theater, tries so hard to be au courant (there are even two references to the Internet Movie Database), it might be bad form to note that its brassy heroine is rooted in classicism. In Roman mythology Diana was the goddess of the hunt. Here our 21st-century protagonist Diane is a cynical variation on the huntress: She is an actor's agent. Diane is the goddess of the Hollywood deal, and god help anyone who gets in the way of her devious machinations.
One of the keen accomplishments of Beane's play is that he has managed to transform an essentially humorless harridan into a delightful howl. As performed with relish and gusto by Erika Rolfsrud, Diane is a cartoon line drawing come to life. (Perhaps the panels that comprise the sleek set designed by Adrian W. Jones are intended to resemble the squares in a cartoon strip.) Although Rolfsrud's helmet of flaming red hair calls to mind the indefatigable Road Runner, Diane is much more in sync with Wile E. Coyote. Whenever this wily actress dominates the stage — and she dominates it every time she appears — viewers enjoy the caressing comfort of being in the presence of a pro at the top of her game. (Rolfsrud deserves a really good agent.)
Diane has such a blast delivering backbiting monologues about showbiz, it's almost a shame that eventually she must surrender the stage so that the play can turn its attention to a plot. Beane's story line concerns Diane's most favored client, Mitchell Green (Chad Allen), a heartthrob movie star whose proclivity for guys is one of Hollywood's better-kept secrets. So what, you ask? Here's the problem: Diane is on the verge of closing a deal whereby Mitchell will star in the film adaptation of a hit Broadway play whose lead character is gay. According to Diane, it's "noble, a stretch" for a straight actor to portray a gay role onscreen. But where's the award-winning challenge in a just-outed gay actor playing a gay character? This is the worst possible time for Mitchell to fall in love with Alex (Mark Fisher), a young male prostitute — which of course he does, much to the consternation, not only of the enterprising Diane, but also of Alex's shallow girlfriend Ellen (Lindsey Wochley).
The Mitchell-Alex scenes, of which there are many, induce a sense of theatrical schizophrenia. They are out of sync with the riotous mode Diane has so (seemingly) effortlessly instilled. Allen and Fisher do their best to strive for honesty. But it's hard to establish a relationship when every other line is asking for a laugh. Beane pulls out all the tricks he knows, including the by-now-obligatory male nudity, yet these scenes feel overwritten. Not to worry. Relief is on the way, because Diane always returns to regale us.
Director Rob Ruggiero has enjoyed great success with prior Rep productions at the Grandel (Take Me Out, Urinetown). Here he has done his best to instill the proceedings with a sense of flashy élan. This is an evening that champions style over substance. But it leaves one question unanswered: Even if Diane is one of the more flamboyantly memorable stage characters of recent years, what are we to make of the play itself? Is a line like "Talking to you is like sewing a button on cottage cheese" a strained attempt at humor, or is that the kind of riposte Oscar Wilde would be writing if he were alive today? Viewers must decide for themselves.
But one thing seems certain. Regardless of the future verdict on The Little Dog Laughed, and even if the play itself in time vanishes into obscurity, Diane's acerbic speeches will be supplying young actresses with material for audition monologues in perpetuity.