TWO OF THE GREATEST gifts a cartoonist can possess are timing, and the power of enormous noticing — an ear for the “when” and an eye for “what’s that?” So it is professionally reflexive when Patrick McDonnell tunes in to those gifts and, like a conductor raising a baton for some perfect harmonic convergence, quickly raises a finger pointing skyward.
We are sitting atop the Kennedy Center as McDonnell, down from the Northeast for a few days, talks about adapting his popular comic strip “Mutts” into other art forms, including a musical and a movie. Not a half-hour earlier, we were watching the first matinee performance ever of “The Gift of Nothing,” the play — based on McDonnell’s picture book — that officially opens Saturday, in its world premiere, at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater (running through Dec. 28). As we talk in the center’s cafe overlooking the Potomac, McDonnell is not up for lunch just now; as the creative team tweaks the show based on this day’s preview, he has more than enough artistically to digest.
Just a month earlier, McDonnell says, he handed in a final draft of a film script to Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios — the same companies that are teaming for the “Peanuts” movie due out next November. “Mutts,” as a film, is literally on the drawing board. “As a matter of fact, I’m going [to Connecticut] Tuesday to Blue Sky to look at some art … ,” McDonnell says. “It won’t hurt that they’re doing a ‘Peanuts’ movie before they do a ‘Mutts’ movie.”
So much about “Mutts” seems blessed by having had “Peanuts” as its precursor. When his comic launched in the mid-’90s, McDonnell recalls that “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz clipped the new strip from the San Francisco Chronicle and sent it to the rising cartoonist. “He wrote on it, ‘Good start–Sparky,’ ” says McDonnell, noting that no subsequent praise or acclaim could top that moment for him.
That’s because although McDonnell has been inspired by so many legendary strips, including “Popeye” and “Krazy Kat” (he authored a book about the latter comic and its genius creator, George Herriman), it was “Peanuts” that won his heart first. “Actually,” he says, “I wanted to be a cartoonist since I was 5 years old and looking at ‘Peanuts.’ ”
Moments after talking of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, a new tune is being piped in over the speakers from the cafe’s ceiling. As a master of both timing and enormous noticing, McDonnell quickly points his finger of a baton skyward. He glances up, with no words needed to communicate the convergence.
There, dancing through the cafe air, is Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy “Peanuts” theme music.
For Patrick McDonnell, this must be the place.
LEE MENDELSON, WHO produced the classic “Peanuts” TV specials for decades, believes in serendipity. So, McDonnell says, did Schulz. “It was,” the “Mutts” creator says, “part of the magic of his career.”
McDonnell’s own career appears to have taken some fortuitous turns — blind bends in the road that worked out well. For one, the New Jersey native went to college at the School of Visual Arts (“I took illustration because that’s what you could major in”) and befriended a fellow artist named Jay Kennedy. Only years later did Kennedy become comics editor at King Features. McDonnell worked extensively as a freelance illustrator before telling Kennedy he wanted to try his hand at a comic strip; his old friend was eager to see something. “One day, I knocked out ‘Mutts,’ ” McDonnell recalls. “As soon as I did it, I just knew that was what I was supposed to do. That’s why I’m here.”
Here is just above the Kennedy Center’s children’s theater, where an hour earlier, several hundred primary grade-schoolers were alternately silent in their rapt attention and then screaming, when encouraged from onstage, in utter engagement with the “Mutts” musical’s climactic big reveal. The deafening din was akin, say, to the sounds of an airplane hangar on helium. In its first matinee performance, “The Gift of Nothing” was literally a roaring success.
And all because one holiday season, actress Erin Weaver gave her husband a “Nothing” gift.
Weaver comes from a family of gift-givers, McDonnell says, while her husband, acclaimed director Aaron Posner, does not — sparking warm debate within their household come the holidays. Several years ago, she gifted Posner with the 2005 book “The Gift of Nothing,” which McDonnell published nearly a decade after King launched “Mutts.” In the story, which centers on the “Mutts” cat-and-dog pairing of Mooch and Earl, respectively, the feline gives her barking friend (spoiler alert) the gift of nothing but true friendship.
Posner, who has directed far more Shakespeare than productions aimed largely at the playground set, decided that he wanted to adapt the book — partly, McDonnell says, because the director is at that stage of his career when he can pick and choose his projects. (Posner, who adapted the book with Weaver and McDonnell, calls “The Gift of Nothing” “one of the most exciting projects I’ve worked on in a long time.”)
The Kennedy Center commissioned the work, and gifted cast and crew were hired. Posner and McDonnell juggled their mutually busy schedules. In the run-up, there was about a month spent in a rehearsal space, and as recently as last week, McDonnell was coming down to D.C. to help hand-paint the costumes. (He put his personal touch on the on-stage newspaper, the “missing” poster, the drum kit — even one young character’s cellphone.)
On the eve of our interview, McDonnell and Posner saw how a half-theater of mostly friends and family would respond to the first preview performance. With the packed house of students on Wednesday, though, the producers would face the true test.
As the play opens, Earl the dog (inspired by McDonnell’s own longtime Jack Russell terrier, and portrayed here by Maggie Donnelly) is panting and sliding about the stage, as frisky as a puppy’s tail-wag. The kiddie audience laughs. It is minutes in, though, before Mooch the cat (Nickolas Vaughan), lounging and blasé, really moves — juiced out of his indifference by a teasing “Little Pink Sock.” The kids erupt. This moment of claws-out catplay rings as a highly recognizable feline truth. “That,” McDonnell says, “is when the play really begins for me.”
The actors do a masterful job of subtly signaling through performance when the children need to be quiet, and when the fourth window becomes a fourth wall to be broken, and the students have permission to vocally engage. “I’ve done book tours for my picture books.” McDonnell says, “and controlling that and not letting that get away is an art form unto itself.”
The show’s lyrics succeed in their high word-playfulness as well as their occasional meditative mournfulness. “That’s all Andy Mitton,” McDonnell says, “We were really lucky — those were 95 percent his lyrics. He really got the feeling of the ‘Mutts’ comic and the feeling of the book. When I get misty, those are mostly his songs.”
McDonnell takes no credit for the clean, whimsical, shades-of-Seussian set design (by Luciana Stecconi), nor the color-contrasting, motion-accentuating costumes (by Laree Lentz). “I’m not a theater person, and was lucky to work with so many talented people,” he acknowledges, emphasizing that he was eager to see other artists’ visions as they played with his characters and story.
Plus, McDonnell says: “We went into it thinking that most ot the audience wouldn’t know the strip and wouldn’t know the book. [The musical] has to stand on its own as a work.
“We’re also lucky that my strip is about a dog and a cat,” he adds, “and I think 99 percent of the audience can relate to that.”
One element that did need to survive the adaptation is the comic’s fuzzy sensibility. “What’s nice is that Aaron, from the beginning, told the actors that the thing never to lose is the tone and feel and warmth of the strip,” says McDonnell, noting that theater and comics share a certain intimacy. “That joy has to permeate. No matter what else went out, it’s about the love underneath. That’s why it worked.”
And it’s that love underneath that sells the misty-eyed climax, when the “nothing” gift means everything.
“What was amazing was that those were very young kids who clapped” during that peak moment in the preview, McDonnell says. “They ‘got’ Nothing. It’s everything they’re thinking about during the holidays…and they clapped when Earl got nothing.
“That was pretty magical.”