When Douglas Carter Beane had the idea to write a play about the struggles of a closeted movie star, he initially dismissed it as old-fashioned and clichéd. Famed San Francisco-based author Armistead Maupin set him straight. ''Are you kidding-'' Beane recalls Maupin saying, even reacting testily to the notion when Beane ran it by him. ''He rattled off like 10 names of closeted gay movie stars that I kind of had known about and just forgotten. It's one of those things where everyone sort of knows it but everyone sort of stores it away like, 'Oh, well, that's not really the case.' But you know it is.''
In the end, Beane's biting satire The Little Dog Laughed is as much about Hollywood agent Diane as it is the character of closeted movie star Mitchell Green. Diane is in control of Green's career -- even his love life. Diane, the Hollywood powerbroker, tells Green he must ''shut up'' about being gay if he wants to advance. It's her job to minimize the gay angle of everything. She introduces the audience to Green as ''a rising young movie star who suffers from a slight...recurring case of homosexuality.''
And that's right before she notes that she herself is a lesbian.
''We are the only minority that has no problem holding each other down,'' says local gay actress Holly Twyford, who plays Diane in Signature Theatre's new production. ''We might look at it as protecting each other. But to a certain extent...it's repression.''
Still, the character of Diane means well. As the public's putative advocate, Diane is obsessed with trying to make everyone happy -- or as happy as possible.
''America has this infatuation with happy endings,'' says the New York-based Beane, who will turn 50 this year. ''When something doesn't have a happy ending, it's disrespectful in some way.''
The play's title comes from a line toward the end. ''You know the type of ending I want,'' Diane says to a put-upon playwright. She wants a couple walking off into the sunset: ''The little dog laughed to see such sport and the dish ran away with the spoon, that type of thing.''
FALLING IN LOVE, ONSTAGE AND OFF
THE LITTLE DOG Laughed ran on Broadway just over two years ago, when it earned a Tony nomination for Best Play and a Tony Award for Julie White's portrayal of Diane. Since then it's become ''one of the most produced plays in America,'' says Beane, who's also written As Bees in Honey Drown, the book for the recent musical Xanadu and the screenplay for To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Beane rattles off recent productions in Los Angeles, Seattle, St. Louis, Chicago, even Arkansas, as well as Paris and Sydney. Signature's Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer snapped it up for D.C. and tapped the theater's Associate Director Michael Baron to direct. In addition to Twyford as Diane, Baron cast Matthew Montelongo as Mitchell, Ivan Quintanilla as the male escort, Alex, and Casie Platt as Alex's needy girlfriend.
Holly Twyford (left) of 'The Little Dog Laughed'
In the show, Mitchell falls for Alex the prostitute, whom he drunkenly calls one night to his hotel room. It's an ill-conceived romance, but it does blossom in spite of the odds.
''This is Mitchell's first time, and it's also Alex's first time at this -- not having sex of course, but acknowledging having feelings for someone of the same gender,'' says Montelongo, a Missouri native who has been working as an actor in New York for a decade. ''Everything moves ultra-fast the first time. I remember the first time I had sex with a guy, I totally fell in love with him 24 hours later. Like crying, writing in my journal, making him mixtapes.''
The relationship onstage is actually mirrored off-stage. Montelongo and Quintanilla have been a real-life couple for several years now.
''That's kind of a first, a gay couple on stage being played by a couple in real life and being open about it,'' says Beane. ''That's kind of interesting.''
The two met while appearing in a play together in Atlanta. More specifically, they met on a flight from their Manhattan homes to Atlanta to do the play, Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue. ''I was at the airport, waiting to board, and I saw this really hunky guy, just waiting to board the plane,'' says Quintanilla, 32, who grew up in Miami. ''And I thought, 'What's he doing going to Atlanta-' Not really putting it fully together. And then we got seated next to each other -- there was Matthew and his cat, Beverly.''
Little Dog Laughed marks only the second time the couple has worked together onstage.
''Couples don't get to work together all that often, so I feel pretty fortunate,'' says Montelongo. Quintanilla says the two had been discussing other plays they could do together after that first one in Atlanta. ''The Little Dog Laughed was one of the plays that came up,'' he says. ''It's kind of crazy and wonderful that it all worked out and a couple years later here we are doing it together.''
''We get to fall in love, have all of this turmoil, make out and be naked. We get to do all of that stuff onstage,'' says Montelongo, conceding that there is an extra challenge in pulling off this particular play as a couple.
''We have to kind of make sure that we aren't too familiar with each other too quickly,'' adds Montelongo. ''Ivan and I clearly have this rapport, both physically with our bodies and personally, and we have to kind of fight against that. But it's in the fighting against that that we'll find some stuff that makes the relationship really live, I hope.''
Quintanilla agrees. ''The deeper any relationship ever is onstage, the more interesting it is, and hopefully just the fact that we have a relationship off-stage will help inform that in some way.''
''They're really wonderful actors, and they're wonderful together,'' adds Twyford. ''I don't know if I would be able to do that, working through that process with a partner. I applaud them for it.''
LOVE, ANGER AND THE CLOSET
DESPITE THE PLAY'S focus on a closeted movie star and his ruthless agent, Beane says his initial focus was on the character of hustler Alex. ''I was sort of writing a fake diary, sections of it, and I didn't know if it was going to be a monologue or a one-man show.'' A couple of lines remain in the play from that character study he first developed a decade or so ago.
Quintanilla says he was intrigued by the role of Alex the first time he saw the play on Broadway.
''Even though he's kind of been around the block, in the sense that he's a hustler, he's had aspects of his life that have been somewhat rough, there's still a certain innocence and sweetness and kindness to him that ultimately is hopeful at the end of the play.''
After Alex, Beane then conceived of the role of Ellen, the hustler's girlfriend. It's a character that's often minimized or overlooked, but Beane says French audiences, in particular, were drawn to Ellen, ''the little waif.''
''If there's someone just on the crest of their success, the Parisians immediately identify with them and feel great compassion for them,'' he says.
Surprisingly, Beane says Mitchell was originally conceived of as a closeted politician, not a movie star. ''I had heard rumors that there were vast numbers of closeted homosexuals in the neo-conservative movement, and I thought that was hilarious,'' Beane says. ''So I started writing about that, and then I got very frustrated, and I just kept getting angrier and angrier'' about the nature of a closeted conservative's self-loathing. ''I didn't want anger to be the meal, I wanted it to be a flavor of the story.''
''Mitchell has a lot of good intentions, but he's drowning in this notion of what he's supposed to be,'' says Montelongo. ''I think for Mitchell, he feels like he really is trapped between having the successful career that he wants and living his life openly and honestly. That has not been my experience, but I think it's really true for him. And he struggles, and he struggles really hard, and he tries to make the right decisions. Maybe if I were him and had the possibility of either being a box-office superstar or just coming out and living your life as a gay man and how wonderful that is but also how much of a struggle that can be, maybe I'd make a different decision, too. I'd hope I wouldn't, but you never know.''
Twyford adds that for all our progress, you still don't see many successful gay actors in Hollywood.
''Certainly there are more people coming out in Hollywood, but the A-Listers who are rumored to be gay, I just don't see it happening. There's got to be these other people around them who are going through the same thing but also saying, 'No, no, no, we gotta stay quiet.'''
HE MEANING HIM, AND 'THE ONLY EVER TRUE AGENT'
BEANE'S OWN EXPERIENCES with Hollywood inform The Little Dog Laughed - though the direct storyline, about a closeted actor, appears not to be directly attributable. As Michael Baron, director of Signature's production, puts it in promotional material for the play: ''I have my guess as to which celebrity the play is based on. Who is yours-''
Beane also reports that very little draws from his most visible project to date in Hollywood, 1995's To Wong Foo.
''I was treated extremely well on that film, because Stephen Spielberg was behind my draft,'' he explains. ''But there were executives at what is now Dreamworks who tried to get me taken off the picture, to get a more seasoned writer.''
Beane says the unseen, put-upon playwright in The Little Dog Laughed, referred to simply as ''He Meaning Him,'' is based on his experience with another play, which he sold to a film studio about 10 years ago. ''When I sold it,...I said, 'This is a story about a Jewish gay man who falls in love with a woman and denies who he is.' And they said, 'Absolutely.' But about a year into it, by the time I handed in my second draft, they said, 'Instead of gay, can he just be kind of shy around women- And how do you feel about Leonardo DiCaprio-' Well, there's a Jewish actor if ever I've seen one.'' The production is still languishing.
In The Little Dog Laughed, Beane employs several rounds of overlapping text, which at one point includes Diane spewing film-contract legalese.
''It gets more and more outrageous, and the audience starts to laugh and thinks at how absurd it is,'' says Beane. ''But those are actually phrases that I've pulled from my contracts.''
A small part of the character of Diane is based on Beane's ''only ever true Hollywood agent'' Mary Meagher, who died of a heroin overdose about two years ago, and to whom the play is dedicated. ''She discovered me and made me, shaped me, and was a wonderful human being who had her own demons and just spun out of control,'' says Beane. ''It's a very sad story.''
Holly Twyford doesn't know any Hollywood agents herself, but notes that Diane ''is really fun to play. She's just single-minded. She's going to do whatever needs to be done to keep things on track. She's scripting the movie and Mitchell's life.''
''Holly is one of the best actors I've ever worked with in my life, and every time I've worked with her, it's been one of the best experiences I've ever had,'' says Montelongo, who has previously starred with Twyford in two shows at Studio Theatre. ''I'm a huge fan of hers.''
For his part, Beane is excited to see Signature's production. ''In particular, I hear really great things about Holly,'' he says, noting that she's a multiple Helen Hayes Award winner. ''Everyone who knows her thinks she's quite special and a real reason to do the show.''
BEANE'S FUTURE HAPPY ENDINGS
BEANE THINKS HE will eventually write a play about a politician, or at least politics. Or maybe he'll just revive a play he's already written.
''I did a thing called The Cartels, which I may bring back. It's sort of a stage soap opera, and one of the characters was a crony, a big-old crony, it was funny and fun to write.''
In the meantime, he's working on a new play called Mr. and Mrs. Fitch, opening Off-Broadway at New York's Second Stage, where The Little Dog Laughed premiered. And he's writing a musical called The Big Time, a satire on America's international diplomacy. ''It's based on two lounge singers on a cruise ship taken over by terrorists. The lounge singers save the day by teaching the terrorists to fall in love with their inner show-business personalities.'' Beane sometimes works with his partner of nearly eight years, Lewis Flinn. (The couple are also raising two toddlers together in Manhattan.) Flinn even composed the music for the New York production of The Little Dog Laughed.
According to Beane, there has been talk of turning The Little Dog Laughed into a movie. ''Hilary Swank was chasing it around for a while,'' he says, though there was very little money offered. ''Hillary, I know you're looking for Oscar No. 3, but come on. If I refuse to accept any money for it, I think it'll be a movie very soon. As I tend to like to get paid for my work - I'm quaint that way - I don't think it'll happen as quickly.''
Who knows, maybe by then The Little Dog Laughed will even have a stereotypical Hollywood happy ending. As it is, the play ends ''kind of unsettled, because it really is a satirical look at our constant quest for happy endings,'' Beane explains.
But in a publication after a production in Dallas, one critic told Beane how to make Little Dog a happy ending.
''I was like, 'Oh, really, that's great. Thanks,''' Beane says, facetiously. ''I'll remember that for the next one. Maybe I'll call you before I send the script out to any directors, so you can tell me how to make a happy ending.''
The Little Dog Laughed opens Tuesday, Jan. 13, and runs through March 8 in The ARK at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets range from $44 to $71. Call 703-573-7328 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.