Summer Repertory Theater Festival, Santa Rosa’s acclaimed training program, has returned for its 45th year. Over the last four-and-a-half decades, Summer Rep has earned a reputation as one of the country’s best experiences for young theater artists, who come from all over the U.S. to spend their summer rehearsing, creating and performing up to five shows, stage in repertory between June and August.
Over that time, audiences have come to expect a certain degree of comfortable consistency in the shows staged each summer, usually an assortment of classics and Broadway favorites. But because this is a program designed to push and challenge its artists, sometimes something unusual, even a bit controversial, manages to sneak its way in.
This year, that’s the case. In addition to the cozy-cute Gershwin musical Nice Work if You Can Get It, the rowdy heavy metal musical Rock of Ages, the Sondheim classic Merrily We Roll Along, and the musty bedroom-farce Boeing Boeing, Summer Repertory Theater is presenting one of its edgiest shows ever. Though you wouldn’t know it from the way Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed has been marketed.
Hardly the light-hearted romp the festival’s advertising suggests, this bold 2006 Hollywood satire brings a bit of welcome edge to a season crammed with frothy crowd-pleasers.
The Little Dog Laughed – its title taken from the nursery rhyme about the dish who runs away with the spoon – is not quite an artistic triumph, due to some spotty performances by a cast otherwise game to tackle a very hard play. But for the sheer boldness of the choice, Summer Repertory Theater is to be commended. With luck, despite the show’s faults, I believe it may still find an audience in its final weeks.
The story is narrated by Diane, a hyper-driven Hollywood agent played by Alexa Erbach, disappointingly off-key in a performance that is far too over-the-top. Diane’s client is a closeted second-tier movie star, Mitchell—played by Justin Genna, the best thing about the show. Mitchell yearns to balance his professional ambitions with his need to find real human connection. Early on, he drunkenly summons a scheming hustler, Alex, whose primary clientele is wealthy men—though he assumes he’s straight because he sometimes sleeps with his best friend Ellen.
As Alex, David Miller, a bit weak in a tough role, though impressively committed to it, and Makenzie Morgan Gomez, as Ellen, is easily the next best thing about the production.
Mitchell’s growing attachment to Alex creates a bit of a problem for Diane, who might still be able to turn Mitchell into a star—if she can only keep him in the closet.
The script is clever, packed with sharp observations and inventive dialogue. The direction by Travis Kendrick is focused and well paced, but too heavy-handed to let the humor breathe. The cast is certainly to be congratulated for its professionalism in handling the script’s sexual content, its suggested nudity, and its intimately close proximity to the audience, the first row of which is seated close enough to touch them. Unfortunately, this kind of writing requires a better balance of darkness and comedy. Perhaps, with a stronger cast and direction, the frank and confrontational outrageousness of Beane’s socially biting storytelling might have been as funny as it is brutal, bleak, and unforgiving.
‘The Little Dog Laughed’ runs through August 7 at Newman Auditorium, on the campus of the Santa Rosa Junior College. www.summerrep.com