Bruce Miller took on a tricky job directing the smart and acerbic comedy "The Little Dog Laughed," energizing the Barksdale stage at Willow Lawn.
The play's sardonic Hollywood-insider attitude could slip all too easily into self-satisfied cleverness. Instead, Miller expertly walks a razor's edge, keeping the humor exquisitely pointed without losing focus on his quirky characters, crafting the most assured, sharp and funny show I've seen at the Barksdale in a long time.
The veteran director brought former Richmond resident Susan Sanford back from Los Angeles to headline "Little Dog," just one of many well-considered choices made in mounting this production. She plays Diane, a hard-charging agent to rising star Mitchell Green (John Kenneth DeBoer). Diane sees an opportunity to upgrade her status to producer if she can secure the movie rights to a hot new play. Unfortunately, Mitchell threatens to scuttle the deal when his "slight recurring case of homosexuality" blossoms into something resembling love after meeting an earnest young hustler, Alex (Matt Hackman). But nothing is simple in show business. Soon, Alex's needy girlfriend, Ellen (Laine Satterfield), presents a few complications -- or possibly, if Diane can manipulate some things, the ultimate solution.
Fashionably outfitted by costumer Sue Griffin and using her husky voice to full effect, Sanford wholeheartedly embraces Diane's duplicitous nature. She lets us in on her inner dialogue as it veers hilariously between sarcastic detachment and ambitious desperation. As the conflicted Mitchell, DeBoer effectively conveys the humanity that's struggling to emerge from the movie star's jaded soul. He also shares a winning chemistry with Hackman, who manages to project both wisdom and innocence in his portrayal of the love-struck Alex, the most sympathetic character of the bunch. Hackman doesn't jibe quite as well with Satterfield, but the actress makes something wholly original out of a character that could be little more than a plot device.
The play involves an abundance of talk and a full-frontal glimpse of the eager lovers, but Miller keeps the pace swift and the action crisp. Miller's straightforward approach is mirrored by Brian Kalin's set: spare but sumptuous where it needs to be. Lighting designer Lynne Hartman provides some superlative support, evoking everything from the flashbulbs of paparazzi cameras to an Indian mandala. Nudity and gay love may equate to controversy for some; at the Barksdale, it adds up to crackling good comedy with a contemporary edge. S
"The Little Dog Laughed" plays at the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn through May 18. Tickets are $34-$38. Call 282-2620 or visit www.barksdalerichmond.org.