Studio's 'Dog Sees God': Aaugh!
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Pop a Prozac, Charlie Brown! Now you've really got reason to be depressed.
In that bastion of childhood insecurity known as "Peanuts," you and the other tykes flaunted your neuroses in ways that could make anguish seem as fitting for playtime as the monkey bars. So here you are, deep into your acne phase in a play about your teenage years, and guess what? Your misery isn't all that delightful anymore.
Not, at least, as playwright Bert V. Royal envisions it in "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead," the sour satire at Studio Theatre Secondstage that suggests -- shocker! -- beguiling children can grow into insufferable adolescents.
What Royal seems to have in mind is a post-"Simpsons" kind of "Peanuts," in which Charles M. Schulz's creations are transformed into foulmouthed, mean-spirited, sexually confused malcontents -- you know, your basic American kids. The comedy, though, is all punch lines and no punch. The ambition, apparently, is merely to provoke little snickers at the manner in which these indelible comic strip characters fulfill their destinies or defy our expectations.
Thus, Lucy (Regina Aquino) is serving time for torching the tresses of the little red-haired girl, and Linus (Evan Casey) is a stoner who smokes the ashes of his blanket. Pigpen (Robert Rector) has metamorphosed into a musclehead who obsessively slathers on anti-bacterials, and Peppermint Patty (Catherine Deadman) -- still with Marcie (Ryan Christie) at her side -- is a predatory mean girl with a Valley girl mouth.
The characters' names have been altered: Linus, for instance, is known as Van, and Schroeder is Beethoven. (You are left to ponder whether the rechristening was the choice of the writer or a law firm.) CB (James Manno) is the moniker given to the post-pubescent Charlie Brown, who retains his trademark ambivalence but is no longer a loser. He's not only joined the in-crowd, he's also become a bully, one who is not above taunting the defenseless Beethoven (James Gardiner), a sensitive soul who has traded in his toy piano for a Casio. In textbook fashion, it seems, CB has turned his doubts about his own sexuality into aggression.
Still, Royal evolves no compelling rationale for this theatrical daydream. Yes, the play does evoke the strip's melancholy strains, the elements that got short shrift in the "Peanuts" television specials and in the musical adaptation, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." But his quoting of "Peanuts" moments is an empty exercise. And as a vehicle for making sport of adolescent angst, there's little to distinguish "Dog Sees God" from parodies of any Lindsay Lohan flick.
The play concerns itself principally with the cruelties that status- and image-conscious teens inflict on each other, and particularly on those suspected of being gay. No doubt gay teenagers still face ostracism in some places. On a stage, though, the theme feels dated. Not even having one of Beethoven's jock-tormenters appear before him in the guise of a lacrosse player -- a figure of more ominous connotation, thanks to recent headlines -- relieves the sense that we're firmly in the realm of the familiar.
Keith Alan Baker, artistic director of Studio's Secondstage, which often showcases younger actors, is handicapped by a script of limited wit. Among the performances, Gardiner's Beethoven is the most appealing; the actor manages to hint at a maturity tinged with sadness. If Manno's Charlie Brown does not quite locate what has to be the character's curious charm, Casey's intense pothead of a Linus is agreeably off-the-wall. Aquino, on the other hand, stirs too much sugar into her cup of Lucy.
Set designer Giorgos Tsappas has devised an attractively simple physical world for the play, a series of frames suggesting the empty panels of a comic strip. The skeletal approach works for less laudatory reasons: There isn't much meat on the bones of "Dog Sees God." Heck, there isn't even a Snoopy. The lovable beagle, we're told, has gone on to the great kennel in the sky.
Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, by Bert V. Royal. Directed by Keith Alan Baker. Lighting, Emily Lagerquist; costumes, Yvette Ryan; sound, Erick Trester; composer, Jesse Terrill; props, Brett Terrell. With Lauren Elaine Williams. About 90 minutes. Through Aug. 6 at Studio Theatre. Call 202-332-3300 or visit http:/