Matthew Montelongo and Ivan Quintanilla in the winning satire. (Scott Suchman )
Some Hollywood agents might labor under the delusion that their powers are godlike. Yet there does appear to be a real touch of the divine in the spirited artist-management satire of "The Little Dog Laughed." And it goes by the name of Holly Twyford.
In the breezy Signature Theatre staging of Douglas Carter Beane's comedy -- a fluffy confection, mind you, about as weighty as a cup of spun sugar -- Twyford plays super-agent Diane, who, to put it mildly, knows better than you. About, well, everything. More to the point, she's an expert at molding a film persona -- squeezing the square peg of an actor's life into the round hole of stardom.
Twyford is as dependable a presence as you'll find on stages in these parts -- a Treasury bond in an art form overrun with shakier derivatives. In most any role, the investment in her pays off.
On this occasion, in Signature's tiny Ark Theatre, she glitters, portraying Diane as both suave control freak and wiseacre working woman, a homage of sorts to all those hyper-articulate dames spewing Dorothy Parker-style one-liners in comedies of the '40s. Somewhere, Rosalind Russell must be beaming.
Beane has written such a lusciously rewarding role for an actress that after Julie White originated it in New York in 2006, the Tony Award practically waltzed into her trophy case. White played Diane strident, loud and manic -- a steamroller in Jimmy Choos. Twyford tempers Diane's neuroses just a smidge, imbuing her with a more impish sense of humor and yet at the same time, retaining the character's imperious manner and beguiling, hair-trigger wit.
When, for instance, Diane's closet-case of a client -- a hot young actor played by Matthew Montelongo -- expresses the wish to be seen in public with his lover and accept a gay part in a movie, Twyford's delivery of Diane's riposte betokens a Wildean savoir-faire. "If an actor with a 'friend' plays a gay role," she declares, "it's not acting, it's bragging."
"The Little Dog Laughed" is mostly a craftily composed excuse for Diane to repeatedly rush in and try to save Montelongo's Mitchell from himself. The idea is that battle-scarred Diane, eternally in search of her next big score (and the ideal of a perfect, nonfat Cobb salad), has been grooming Mitchell, a chiseled boy-next-door type with the potential to move up to leading-man parts. Together, they latch onto a play about a pair of gay lovers, which Diane is convinced could be turned into a major motion picture, with Mitchell finally achieving blastoff in a breakout role.
The hitch is that Diane doesn't want Mitchell playing a gay character in a movie. She subscribes to the belief that a bachelor of a certain age portraying a gay man will be subject to whisperings about his sexuality and, as a result, his climb up the ladder of romantic leading roles will be seriously stymied. (Although it is set in the present, "Little Dog" may represent Hollywood as being less flexible on gender issues than is absolutely true.) So even as Mitchell pursues a new relationship, with the rent boy (Ivan Quintanilla) whom he's invited to his hotel room, Diane seeks a meeting with the gay playwright. She wants to persuade him to turn the play's gay lovers into a straight couple for the movie version.
That leads, among other things, to a highly diverting restaurant scene, in which Diane and Mitchell shamelessly flatter the unseen playwright in the effort to secure the rights and soften him up for the forthcoming script revisions. (Another funny sequence follows, revealing Diane dictating contract terms, which seem to encompass not only domestic and foreign distribution but interplanetary as well.)
The play attains its pinnacle moments while sending up Diane and her industry's tribal business rites. The ancillary threads of the plot, which entangle Mitchell in the lives of Quintanilla's Alex and, by extension, Alex's materialistic on-again, off-again girlfriend Ellen (Casie Platt), feel like obligatory mechanics. The sensation is reinforced in the far-fetched ending that Beane concocts, a tying-up that's not quite up to the sophistication of what's come before.
Still, the director, Michael Baron, provides a jauntily entertaining account of Beane's play, which is handsomely mounted on a small platform by set designer Lee Savage. The evening's stylishness is enhanced by the costumes of Guy Lee Bailey, who dresses Ellen in outrageous prints and Diane in the pinstriped power suits she would wear to lunch at the Ivy.
Built like a running back, the square-jawed Montelongo might not be the first actor a casting office might think of for Mitchell, but he offers a convincing turn as a mixed-up narcissist -- one who's perplexed over whether to focus on the needs of his heart or his Internet Movie Database profile. Quintanilla and Platt are strong here, too, playing a pair of parasites overmatched by the expensively coiffed Hollywood hustler who finds a way to neutralize each of them.
Speaking of Diane: She's the juice that fills the comic cup of "Little Dog Laughed" to overflowing. And with Twyford in the role, that vessel automatically achieves an upgrade to champagne.
The Little Dog Laughed, by Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by Michael Baron. Set, Lee Savage; lighting, Mark Lanks; costumes, Guy Lee Bailey; sound, Matt Rowe. About two hours. Through March 8 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit http://www.signature-theatre.org or call 703-573-7328.