Movie stars cultivate their screen image so carefully that they endlessly worry whether some bit of tabloid gossip will point out a discrepancy between that image and what they're really like in private life. That's the sort of anxiety making a movie actor nervous in Douglas Carter Beane's "The Little Dog Laughed" at Fells Point Corner Theatre.
Hypcritical stars, controlling agents and other trappings of tinseltown life have been satirically dealt with many times before, but this playwright makes a claim on your attention owing to his knack for writing clever dialogue that's delivered in a showbiz world where agents make pitches with fastball velocity.
Directed by Steve Goldklang, this production's capable cast knows its lines and how to deliver them. They're also having fun, which makes a difference with a play that taps into serious themes and yet does not take itself too seriously.
The energetic performance that truly sparks this staging is Holly Pasciullo as a strong-willed agent, Diane, who is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that she and her clients rise to the top of the Hollywood hills. Pasciullo's brassy delivery makes Diane a formidable figure in the studio food chain.
Diane's got a problem client, though, and her tough talk may not be enough to settle this situation. That client, Mitchell, is a second-tier actor whose ascension to real stardom may be threatened by changes he's experiencing in his private life.
Although Tom Burns gives a solid performance as Mitchell, his casting in this role seems less than ideal. There are scripted references to Mitchell's cinematic leading man potential. Burns would qualify as reasonably handsome by Hollywood standards, but he's got a slightly homely quality that does not exactly match how the dialogue glowingly describes this character.
One of this production's casting decisions aside, the play itself expresses all sorts of worries about how Mitchell will fare in the casting for a big-budget movie that's in the works. It turns out that during a trip to New York, the normally reserved and, for that matter, downright repressed Mitchell has hired a "rent boy" to visit his hotel room.
When Mitchell and his paid visitor, Alex (Chris Krysztofiak), realize that this temporary appointment is leading to sincere conversation and, who knows, maybe a relationship, Mitchell agonizes over identity-related issues. Once Diane learns about the budding relationship, she worries whether her client's straight arrow public image will be endangered.
Further complicating an already-entangled web of private and public concerns, it turns out that Alex has a girlfriend, Ellen (Emma Healy), whose own sense of morality allows for his "rent boy" career as a way for them to pay their own New York rent. Be that as it may, Ellen does not like the idea that Alex has developed a genuine emotional attachment to one of his clients.
Beane's 2006 Broadway play, which was nominated for a Tony Award as best play, effectively bounces between characters in brief scenes set in New York and Los Angeles. Although it certainly would be possible to consolidate some of the snippet-sized scenes, the playwright admittedly gains in nervous energy what he sometimes loses in narrative smoothness.
Any way you write it, though, Diane and Mitchell are so nervous about the public face of stardom that you'll find yourself laughing at their anxious arguments. They don't find this situation funny, but you will.
"The Little Dog Laughed" runs through Dec. 11 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, at 251 S. Ann St., in Baltimore. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., with Thursday shows Dec. 1 and 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 to $17. Call 410-276-7837 or go to http://www.fpct.org.