Theater purists never tire of carping disdainfully about the invasion of TV and film actors without solid stage experience. They must be poised to pounce on “Dog Sees God,” its cast bios light on Shakespeare but bulging with such credits as “Lost,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “American Pie.” But it turns out the assembly of hot young things is the prime asset of Bert V. Royal’s protracted comedy sketch. Director Trip Cullman and a talented design team give punchy treatment to this unauthorized parody of the “Peanuts” gang tangling with teen-angst issues, but it rarely amounts to more than variations on a single joke.
Audiences who find lines like “Holy fucking shit!!! You’re a homo, Charlie Brown!!!” real thigh-slappers likely will eat this up, finding subversiveness in its slender premise and profundity in the shallow sensitivity with which it explores Big Questions. The fevered hit status accorded the show when it played in a far less starry production at the 2004 New York Intl. Fringe Festival indicates a receptive public exists, most of them probably still young enough to be nostalgic for the high school hormonal rampages and identity explorations played out onstage.
Thanks to its balance of affection for the original material and sophomoric irreverence, “Dog’s” appropriation of the teen-movie idiom to give a contemporary makeover to the iconic American cartoon strip yields its share of laughs. And the metamorphoses undergone by Charlie, Lucy and pals in the roller-coaster years since puberty hit are played by the attractive actors with a certain spunky insouciance that’s frequently disarming. But the fact remains that everything Royal aims for, in terms of insights into life and all its existential conundrums, was accomplished with a lighter, more playful touch 50 years ago by “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz.
Dropping the trademarked “Peanuts” names in favor of aliases, the play uses as its springboard the stream-of-consciousness reflections of CB (Eddie Kaye Thomas), following the death of his beloved beagle. The dog was put to sleep after being found cowering in the corner of its kennel, covered with the blood of the little yellow bird that had been its friend for years.
Flanking the introspective blockhead are his familiar childhood cohorts, some of them more radically altered by adolescence than others. Once a precocious, carefree kid, CB’s sister (America Ferrera) is now an outsider, a brooding goth exploring witchcraft and (somewhat tiresomely) performance art. She still has a crush on Linus, a Buddhist stoner called Van (Keith Nobbs). His quasi-intellectual philosophizing is now hopelessly clouded by primo weed, which he mixed with the ashes of his security blanket and smoked after CB and Van’s sister (Eliza Dushku) burned it. (CB: “Three words for you, bro — Pubic. Lice. Infestation.”)
The blanket bonfire is one in a string of arsonist incidents that have landed the girl formerly known as Lucy in the Daisy Hill Mental Hospital, her padded cell far removed from the lemonade stand where she once charged 5¢ for psychiatric advice. But the doctor is still in, and even in seclusion the crabby bully of the gang can still make her influence felt.
Peppermint Patty and Marcie have evolved from tomboy and bespectacled geek, respectively, into Tricia (Kelly Garner) and Marcy (Ari Graynor), a Paris-and-Nicole-type tartlet duo who mix vodka with their juice boxes, delight in dissing Van’s chunky sister and are not averse to some three-way action with Matt (Ian Somerhalder). The former Pigpen has traded his aura of filth for germphobic obsessiveness and his happy-go-lucky ways for uptight homophobic aggression, viciously targeting the ostracized, piano-playing Beethoven (Logan Marshall-Green).
Deeply unsettled by the death of his dog, CB reaches out to introverted Beethoven, who still claims uncertainty about his sexuality, even after CB kisses him at a party, scandalizing the gang.
Given the way the kids are portrayed, it seems odd that this ostensibly cool high-schooler set would be so freaked that one of their number is gay. But Royal’s point seems more of a jibe about deceptive appearances than a comment on conformist pressure or hostility toward the unknown.
“Peanuts” fans will be amused by utterly ordinary Charlie Brown experimenting with his sexuality (“No offense, CB, but I don’t think you’re cool enough to be gay,” says Van’s sister) or by sporty Peppermint Patty — the most stereotypical candidate for same-sex preference — having become an out-of-control Barbie doll, possibly wrestling with closeted lesbian desire.
The play flirts with poignancy in the tentative connection between CB and Beethoven, but that’s as much to do with the tender-hearted perfs of Thomas and Marshall-Green as with any nuance in the writing. While Royal sentences the unstable Beethoven to hackneyed teen tragedy, Marshall-Green’s touching, melancholy characterization is what resonates most here. Whether hunched over the piano keys in classic Schroeder pose or fighting with conflicted urges to be overjoyed or threatened by CB’s affections, he’s the most complex character onstage.
As he showed in recent Off Broadway productions like “Manic Flight Reaction,” Cullman can put a droll, breezy spin on flawed material. And designers David Korins (sets), Jenny Mannis (costumes) and Brian MacDevitt (lighting) are adept at crafting a colorful cartoon world of simple forms and hard outlines.
What some of the cast lacks in stage technique they make up in energy, fearlessness and conviction. She may be the most over-the-top of the bunch, but in a gallery of unapologetically cartoonish perfs, the Valley Girl shtick of Garner (Howard Hughes’ jailbait girlfriend in “The Aviator”) is consistently funny.
Royal certainly knows his “Peanuts” and has a good ear for teen dialogue, but it all boils down to jokes threaded together in a flimsy dramaturgical blueprint.
The playwright tries in the final scene to make a case for CB struggling to become a real person, instead of feeling “just like some ‘creation’ and that somewhere there’s people laughing every time you fail.”
The challenge of seeking an identity, of being an autonomous, thinking, feeling adult rather than a preprogrammed cutout, seems to be the theme here. But this homage-cum-deconstruction of Schulz’s sweetly humanistic world of unanswered questions is never developed enough to take “Dog Sees God” beyond the limited boundaries of broad parody.