Saturday, December 17, 2005

Review: Dog Sees God

The question to which this show attempts to be the answer is: "What would happen to the Peanuts comic-strip gang if they actually grew up?" And before I get to how it answers that, it has to be noted that this show, playing at Century Center, off Union Square, is stocked full of recognizable if B-list young actors from movies and TV. A quick run-down:

· America Ferrera, from Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Real Women Have Curves.
· Logan Marshall-Green, who played Trey from "The OC" and starred as the Shark in Swimming in the Shallows, also directed by the same guy as this show, Trip Cullman.
· Eddie Kaye Thomas, from the American Pie dynasty.
· Kelli Garner, from The Aviator and Thumbsucker.
· Ari Graynor, from the MTC's stage play Brooklyn Boy.
· Eliza Dushku, from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and Bring It On.

The cast has obviously been assembled to draw in a demographic similar to the kind that goes to see their movies, but may not see much live theater. But a warning to parents (it was too late for the family in the front row - who knows what kind of conversations they had later that night): The Peanuts have taken a detour through South Park and countless other R-rated movies on their way to adolescence. The characters are a compendium of all the problems kids have today, if the shock headlines, the teen movies and parents' collective fears are to be believed. Many of them turn out rather cliched, but not totally devoid of comedic value. And what helps to save them from dropping into total stereotypes is the quasi-dramatic irony created by the tension between the audience's recollection of the younger Peanuts characters and their latter-day personas. "Mark" (aka Pigpen), for instance, has become OCD, constantly cleaning his hands and worrying about germs, and shuddering each time someone makes a joke about where swine live.

But if Charles Schulz's original characters at times felt like they transcended their schoolyard age with higher thoughts and deeper concerns (i.e., the philosophizing of adults), the cast here seems to have reverted to teenage mediocrity. They're still concerned with the meaning of life, the universe and everything (sparked especially by the death of Snoopy early on) - it just comes across as tired and bland: the stoner's constant epiphanies, the pair of ditzes' dismissal of all things not here, now and popular ...

Don't get me wrong, I laughed quite a bit, and enjoyed myself, if perhaps not as much as the creators had hoped. But when the plot takes a turn for the serious, there is little segue and we're not quite sure when to stop laughing at the cruelty as parody and start calling it for what it is. It would be different if this were truly a black comedy in which we might be expected to keep laughing right through, but that doesn't seem to be the playwright's intention. No, he's hoping for some redemptive tears. The sadness passes, and the end of the show brings it back to the beginning and reminds us of why many of us came to see the show in the first place: the Peanuts were a wonderful, if sometimes sentimental, part of our popular past.

So while the play is entertaining if uneven, it doesn't feel as timeless as the original. Perhaps the best way to watch Dog Meets God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead is to plan for the comic-strip equivalent of a tribute-band concert, and hope that your expectations will be exceeded.

Regular-price tickets are $65, but there is an all-$25 performance at 10pm on Fridays and a two-hours-before student rush for that same reduced price. Opening night was Thursday, and it's in an open run.

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