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2005_12_arts_sallyandbeethoven.jpgI must admit, growing up I was always a bit bewildered by how my parents found Peanuts strips funny. I couldn’t get into them, especially certain characters and running jokes like Woodstock with his chicken-scratch thought bubbles or the whole Red Baron thing. Now, I’m a fan of Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks and the way it skewers current culture and politics with acid-tongued humor to spare, which may explain why I really liked Bert Royal’s Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead. It’s a “where are they now?” of the Peanuts characters – those that aren’t dead – and all is not well. Many in the audience seemed to be Peanuts fans, and thus got some gags sooner than I did and laughed appreciatively at the appearance of each new beloved character, but despite (or because of?) my lack of connection to the original gang, I thoroughly enjoyed the parodies and relatively shocking ideas about what’s become of them.

Dog Sees God is a success story from the Fringe Festival: a hit last year, it demonstrates the answer to a question one often asks oneself while watching a good but bare-bones festival entry – what would it look like if they had a little money? This set (by David Korins) isn’t extravagant, but it’s pretty cool, and is enhanced by excellent lighting (thanks to Brian MacDevitt). I can’t speak for the original production, since unfortunately it was one I missed last year, but this cast, touted as full of hot, up-and-coming young actors, is great. “CB,” as the main character is known (it’s an “unauthorized parody, so most of the characters’ names are tiptoed around like this, though occasionally Royal comes out and uses the real one), is portrayed with an appropriately melancholy sensitivity by Eddie Kaye Thomas, familiar as Finch in the American Pie movies. The play begins as he reads aloud a letter he’s written to his penpal, in which he describes how his beloved dog has died of rabies; that set-up alone gives you some idea of what you’re in for here. The next character to appear is CB’s sister: Sally in the strip, here she is nameless, but America Ferrara brings her grown-up version to life as an angsty, earnest yet cynical teen who’s Wiccan one day, born-again the next. She’s the only member of the school drama club, and her rehearsal of her solo performance “Cocooning into Platypus” is comedy gold.

2005_12_arts_CBandvan.jpg Snoopy’s death has made CB question everything in the world, and that spurs his wandering through Peanuts-ville – he wants to know what the others think of it, whether they believe in heaven for dogs and so on. The crazy twists and turns their lives have taken quickly overpower CB’s quest, though, and the plot soon switches to being more about discrimination against gays than about understanding death. This is because Beethoven (i.e., Schroeder) is, on just one tragic piece of evidence, presumed to be gay, and tortured by the others for it. Logan Marshall-Green is perfect in the part, from the moment he’s glimpsed on stage, hunched over the piano just like his cartoon counterpart. Much of the acting is cartoonish, really, but in this case that’s not an insult, because that’s as it should be. Tricia and Marcy (i.e., Peppermint Patty and Marcie), as played by Kelli Garner and Ari Graynor, are the most acute examples of this, and their antics are almost too outrageous and annoying in a couple of scenes – the girls are now alcoholic, slutty, and wickedly catty – but mostly they’re so funny that any irritation gets washed away by the laughter (and recognition of truth in the high school girl stereotypes they play up).

Van (Linus, played by Keith Nobbs), Matt (Pigpen, played by Ian Somerhalder), and “Van’s sister” (Lucy, played by Eliza Dushku) all show too, and all are well acted. The way the cast is put together, though, partially illustrates my main gripe with Dog Sees God, which is that it isn’t quite sure what it’s meant to be about. It starts, as I noted, by being all about CB’s search for comfort in the wake of Snoopy’s funeral, but that theme kind of falls by the wayside as the gay-bashing one comes in. But even that one seems sort of secondary alongside Royal’s overall impulse to make each character’s teenage life as jarringly unexpected and disturbing compared with his or her strip identity as possible. Combined with the unevenly split plot, this made it feel somewhat too diffuse – that is, if you step back and consider it all. I found that I was just too amused to get bent out of shape about this, especially since the narrative does have some really strong points and because the actors do such spiffy work. If the show had a laser-like focus on one of the issues it broaches, it likely would’ve compromised the humor, and where’s the good in that? Dog Sees God is witty, engaging, and hilarious, a successful transition of a Fringe show to the (almost) big time. Here’s hoping lots more follow in its footsteps.

Details: Dog Sees God is at the Century Center, 111 E. 15th St. Performances are Mon., Wed., Thurs. & Sat. at 8pm, Fri. & Sun. at 7pm, Sat. also at 4pm and Fri. also at 10pm (for which all tickets are just $25). Tickets at Telecharge.

Photos by Carol Rosegg.