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Dog Sees God

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Good grief, this was a Fringe Festival hit?

Okay, in some ways, it's easy to see why Fringegoers flocked to Dog Sees God in 2004: It's ruthlessly youthful, it's drenched in profanity and topics ranging from sex and drugs to homosexuality and suicide, and it mercilessly skewers the beloved characters of Charles Schulz's classic comic strip "Peanuts," so straightforward, warm, and honest that it can't help but make any antiestablishment theatre maven's blood boil.

But it's difficult to imagine discriminating - let alone mainstream - theatregoers finding much of value in this brutally joyless play, which just opened at the Century Center. This production makes painfully clear something future Fringe transfers should keep in mind: What looks great downtown on warm August nights doesn't always have the same impact in major venues in the cold light of day or the cold air of December.

And "cold" is an excellent word for Dog Sees God, which commits the cardinal sin of parodies (this one bills itself as "unauthorized") or adaptations of popular, pre-existing works: It evinces not a shred of love or respect for, or understanding of, the original. This makes both the play and this production, which has adequate but undistinguished direction by Trip Cullman, hollower, shallower, and much less funny then the comics they try to torpedo.

In the first scene alone, we learn that Charlie Brown's beagle Snoopy has been put to sleep. (He developed rabies and chewed to death his longtime playmate Woodstock.) After an underattended funeral (only Charlie's sister, Sally, joins him at the backyard service), one question lingers in Charlie's mind: What happens when we die? Suffice it to say, confused Goth-kid Sally, Charlie's dreadlock-decked friend Linus, his hunky pal Pigpen, valley girls Peppermint Patty and Marcie, piano-playing gay guy Schroeder, and pyromaniac mental patient Lucy aren't of much help.

They are, after all, too busy embracing every teen trope imaginable. Sally (America Ferrera) is a frustrated performance artist. Linus (Keith Nobbs) is a pothead. Pigpen (Ian Somerhalder) is now a compulsive germophobe never seen without a bottle of hand sanitizer. Schroeder (Logan Marshall-Green) is a tall, lanky virgin forever sporting glasses and plaid. Patty and Marcie (Kelli Garner and Ari Graynor) are the popular girls who sneak alcohol into their lunchtime milk. Lucy reacted violently to one girl's suggestion she planned to save her virginity until her wedding night.

A nominal story ties all this together - guess who's secretly gay! - but Royal's cliché-riddled writing relies too heavily on low-voltage shocks (ooh, they just did drugs and now they're having a threesome) for fuel; after the first five minutes, his one joke just isn't that funny anymore. And there's no issue Royal addresses that hasn't been handled more sensitively and creatively elsewhere, and his devotion to parody completely stifles his own voice: We get no sense of what he might accomplish if he bothered to create original characters and put them in specific, original situations that illuminate larger aspects of the human condition.

You know, more like Schulz. The kids populating his world are manifestations of adult insecurities, never intended to be real children. (At least no child I've ever known has missed catching a baseball because she was worried about foreign policy or demanded a notary public authorize a contract banning football pulling.) The real Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and others reflect adult silliness across a wide range of social subjects; TV's South Park or Broadway's Avenue Q, while raunchier, have similar goals of saving us from taking ourselves too seriously.

But they choose their targets carefully, and gut or update them affectionately. Royal's full-frontal assault on Schulz suggests a distaste for his morals and a desire to update them to How We Live Today. But in taking a literal approach to a nonliteral idea, Royal strips away the gang's complexity, making them sound and behave considerably more immature than their Schulzian analogues. As but two examples, Schulz's academic, security-blanket-attached Linus seems more real than Royal's stoner mock intellectual, and Schroeder's impeccable wisdom and artistic integrity aren't at all reflected in the generic nerd-of-the-week treatment he receives here.

It's likely for this reason that Royal has slightly renamed the gang: Charlie Brown is CB, Pigpen is Matt, Linus is Van, Marcie is Marcy, and so forth. Of course, had he completely camouflaged the "Peanuts" connection, no one would give Dog Sees God a second look; it's remarkable for no other discernible reason.

This production, though, might score a double take or two because of its young, Hollywood-centric, impossibly attractive cast led by Eddie Kaye Thomas (of the American Pie movies) as eternal blockhead CB. To his credit, there are times he almost taps into Charlie Brown's flighty emotional core, occasionally suggesting this might be the same guy with 10 extra years and 10 fewer Commandments. But no other performer remotely recalls Schulz, and the nudge-wink, unsympathetic archetypes they create never transcend the base gimmick to become anything true or relatable.

Cullman tries, often successfully, to imbue the proceedings with a comic-strip unpredictability, and this is nicely represented in David Korins's colorful Schulz-inspired sets. But despite snatches of jazzy Vince Guaraldi music (with a new metal edge), sight gags about the original characters' postures or dance moves, and throwaway references to minor characters or events from the strips, nothing here is an adequate substitute for, or extension of, the true "Peanuts" world. Royal might prefer to vivisect it than pay homage to it, but it will still outlive both him and Dog Sees God.

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Dog Sees God
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Century Center, 111 East 15th Street (East of Union Square and Park Avenue)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge