Cerberus of ancient myth was a three-headed hound at Hades’ gate, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s “Doctor Cerberus” is something of a three-headed creature itself. Part writer’s coming-of-age story, part gay man’s coming-out story and part dysfunctional-family melodrama, it’s all wrapped around a horror movie-obsessed youth in mid-80s Maryland who sees homelife as hell on earth. For all its campily ghoulish trappings, the material is familiar and sometimes downright stale, though a fine cast in Bart DeLorenzo’s South Coast Rep premiere does its best to serve as re-animators.
We’ve seen the character type repped by Franklin Robertson (Brett Ryback) a thousand times — the physically unprepossessing, nerdy teen narrator whose affinity for art, and precocious self-awareness, get him through his battles with the standard family members: blowsy, Gorgonish mother (Candy Buckley), ineffectual father (Steven Culp) and walking-jockstrap sibling Rodney (Jarrett Sleeper) who snottily calls his brother “Biscuit.”
Aguirre-Sacasa’s conceit is to demonstrate the lad’s woes through the prism of the schlock cinema he adores. So his gym class weigh-in evokes “The Blob,” and a reckoning with an English teacher becomes “Return to Horror High.”
But Christopher Ash’s projected filmclips and Rand Ryan’s luridly expressionistic lighting effects frame the cliched events without leavening them. It’s briefly funny when Rodney’s hunky buddy Sean (versatile Jamison Jones, who portrays all non-Robertsons) conjures up “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein,” but the joke, like most of the movie hommages, just lies there.
Later on, when Franklin’s college plans cause a family meltdown, the actors seem positively relieved to put aside the horror movie affectations and just let the conflicts rip.
The play tells us a burgeoning scribe needs a sympathetic adult confidante, yet neither of Franklin’s mentors resonates. Effete Uncle Jack serves his inspirational purpose and promptly disappears, leaving a surprisingly light trail behind.
As for the titular medico, host of a local midnight “Nightmare Theater,” he never offers a consult on Franklin’s sexual or familial problems, and anyway it’s not his pun-filled antics, but the pics he programs, which truly impact our hero. (Oddly, Franklin never notices any disjunction between the cinema he reveres and Cerberus’ campy, even condescending shtick.)
The doctor sequences, then, are just a running gag, part of DeLorenzo’s elaborate stagecraft serving to divert but not deepen. Buckley and Culp have wonderfully real moments throughout, even if they often seem stymied when required to assail Franklin on one page and offer a helping hand on the next. Sleeper is a suitably vile foil for a brother, and Ryback (also a gifted musical comedy composer) deftly executes the high-wire act of believably morphing a young character over a decade or more.
Still, one wonders why we get from him little hint of self-centeredness, pissy wit or any traits smacking of less than admirable. Mom and Dad can be counted on to rain on his parade, and Rodney needs to get plastered before his facade drops. Yet Franklin is directed to remain true to himself and cuddly at any age or weight class.
Perhaps a better title would be “Revenge of the Biscuit”: A (presumably) autobiographical protagonist dubs his home “the House of Frankenstein” while fancying himself the least horrific exhibit.