"The Little Dog Laughed" may ring a bell. Aside from being a truly uproariously funny contemporary play with a Broadway run and a Tony Award nomination in its history, it's a line from a nonsense nursery rhyme. "Hey diddle diddle;" it goes, "the cat and the fiddle; the cow jumped over the moon." You should be able to take it from there.
While this production borrows its title from a childish poem, it should by no means be mistaken for children's entertainment, and in fact, an early scene's full-frontal male nudity audibly takes the full house at Fells Point Corner Theatre by surprise. But the adult content shares quite a few themes with the nursery rhymes and fables that underscore our childhood: It's all about the pursuit of happiness and how our success or failure in that quest hinges on our decisions.
The performance opens with a monologue from Diane (a triumphant Holly Pasciullo), a powerhouse, middle-aged Hollywood agent who's also apparently a lesbian. Her commentary ricochets its way from Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's to her relationship with her client, Mitchell, who "suffers from a slight recurring case of homosexuality," she says. And ricochet is a good word to describe the trajectory of the monologues that pepper the production and provide a backbone of narration.
Next thing we know, a very drunk Mitchell (Tom Burns) has called up escort service Manhattan School Boys during a hotel sojourn in New York, and young, sweet Alex (Chris Krysztofiak) shows up at his door. Alex May be a self-described hustler, but he wears his heart on his sleeve-a quality fully embraced and poignantly portrayed by Krysztofiak-and his decision to stay the night rather than take the money and run when Mitchell falls asleep fully clothed is the first sense that this is not your average 24-year-old "rent boy."
The hilariously awkward yet tender progression of Mitchell and Alex's relationship is complicaTed Further by Alex's long-term friendship-with-benefits with Ellen (Emma Healy), to whom Alex refers as his "girlfriend," and Diane's dead-set determination to keep Mitchell in the closet for the sake of his career.
As the characters' idiosyncrasies come to life on stage through the play's bitingly sharp dialogue, it becomes increasingly apparent that this production of The Little Dog Laughed is brilliantly and evenly cast. Pasciullo's intensity and unblinking, sardonic delivery of Diane's laugh-out-loud one-liners easily render her the show's star, even as she plays the straight man to the other actors' well-executed comedy.
Healy offers a perfectly jaded portrayal of Ellen, a wannabe upper-crust snob who is giddy with condescension and says-delightfully deadpan-that at 24, "hope is dead." Her eye rolls, hip juts, and big, overly done hand gestures are so on point, and her quips about her mother (whose place in the post-hysterectomy set is cemented when she turns Ellen's childhood bedroom into a crafts studio) and about Alex's Spanish-speaking landlord are raucously funny. But even more meaningful is her palpable envy and pain as Alex's scorned lover.
Krysztofiak and Burns both attack their challenging, exceptional roles with aplomb and poise, especially given the requirements for onstage homosexual affection. Krysztofiak's Alex is believably idealistic, and his face captures the emotions of a young man caught somewhere between childhood and maturity. The actor's shining moment comes at the beginning of the second act, when he "pretends to sleep" next to Mitchell and boisterously comes to terms with the fact that he feels gay "today," leaving the audience roaring. Burns plays his closeted, self-centered Hollywood star with an appropriate mix of awkwardness, frustration and ego.
As an ensemble, the cast makes complicated, three-part vignettes-the kind that require precise timing and delivery-seem effortless. And that makes the actors easy to watch-and to cheer for. While it's unclear who ends up the winner in this four-way tug of war, it's evident that the driving force is their ongoing search for happiness, in whatever form that may take. It's also equally obvious that for two and a half hours, they've allowed the audience to find that happiness with them.
The Little Dog Laughed runs Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 11 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St. in Baltimore. Its next production, The Iceman Cometh, opens Jan. 13, 2012. For more information, visit www.fpct.org.