Aging up the witty, wise-beyond-their-years Peanuts characters from bubbly, holiday-celebrating elementary schoolers to brooding, badass adolescents proves to be a fruitful gimmick for Bert V. Royal’s tender teen drama Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead (★★★☆☆). The unauthorized parody adaptation, staged by Jason Tamborini in Prologue Theatre’s modestly satisfying new production, generally works best by downplaying its comic strip origins to tell the compelling story of teen CB (Noah Schaefer) confronting his own mortality following the death of his beloved beagle due to a grisly case of rabies.
It’s a sad turn of events for CB and his Sister (Sophie Schulman), and all the Snoopy fans out there. The late pooch’s now-unoccupied red doghouse sits prominently downstage on Andrew R. Cohen’s lovely set, which effortlessly marks the landscape of CB’s sad high school life, from classroom to cafeteria to his family’s backyard. Wherever he goes, CB’s world is a lonelier place without his four-legged best friend.
His earnest attempts to make sense of his loss are, in CB’s typically underdog fashion, not terribly effective. And his well-meaning friends, like newly Buddhist stoner bud Van (Jonathan E. Miot), are all too frazzled in their own ways to be of much help. CB finds an unexpected bright spot reconnecting with introverted, piano-playing classmate Beethoven (Tiziano D’Affuso). When their newly exhilarating friendship blossoms into flirtation and more, the teens’ path to romance crashes head-on into a wall of bullying hate and homophobia.
The woes of this teenage blockhead indeed are no laughing matter. Still, the script has fun with the premise, with tongue-in-cheek mentions of Franklin and Frieda and the Little Red-Haired Girl. Not every joke depends on a passing knowledge of all the Peanuts characters, but Charles Schulz’s classic cartoon strip crew are treated here as universal symbols of childhood, and the subversion of their innocence — every kid’s innocence — appears to be the point. If you’re going to turn famously philosophical Linus Van Pelt into a pothead in a poncho, then having him also smoke up his security blanket is a pretty deft touch.
Likewise, Van’s Sister (Lida Maria Benson), the show’s Lucy substitute, turns up as a patient inside a psych ward. It makes for delicious irony. Benson produces a strong impression in her brief appearance as the straight-talking big sis who’s suffering her own losses, and Miot supplies laughs and infectious energy playing her too-toasted-to-think younger brother.
As opposed to the light touch applied to the show’s humor, Tamborini’s production registers some serious turns with a melodramatic, Afterschool Special heaviness that doesn’t serve the story as well. Playing school bully Matt, Conor Patrick Donahue presses hard to put across the character’s raging insecurity and virulent homophobia. As both CB’s supposed best friend and main antagonist, Matt’s not really funny, yet he’s hard to take seriously. Tricia (Annie Ottati), queen of the school’s popular clique, offers a more successful balance of the play’s mix of comedy and topicality. Ottati’s delightful performance lends this mean girl who’s not that mean added warmth and dimension, especially in her bantering best friendship with sidekick Marcy (Vanessa Chapoy).
Central to every dimension of the show’s success is Schaefer’s raw, anguished performance as CB. Not every joke lands in his sober delivery, but he credibly projects the humanity of this lost and searching soul. Gasping for air, CB finds oxygen in his friendship with moody Beethoven, and together Schaefer and D’Affuso stir up the electric air of kinship and attraction.
D’Affuso brings a captivating gravity to the part, which isn’t all teenage romance, as Beethoven not only tries (and fails) to avoid bullies like Matt, but still carries the shame of his dad having been arrested for what the script implies are serious crimes. On several occasions, Beethoven retreats to the school music room to pour his fear and passion into playing Chopin, and D’Affuso expresses that same moving gravity through the music that underscores the burgeoning love story of this emotionally damaged musician and the world’s most famous blockhead.
Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead runs through Nov. 3 at Dance Loft on 14, 4618 14th St. NW. Tickets are $25 to $35. Call 703-382-8012, or visit www.prologuetheatre.org.
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