Though Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead has no official association with the estate of Charles M. Schulz—a fact the program notes are careful to highlight—the inspiration for the show is blatant: What if Charlie Brown, Schulz’s long-suffering everyboy, aged and were forced to endure the emotional intensity of modern adolescence?
Now, Charlie Brown, as portrayed by Schulz, could hardly have been said to have had it easy as a preteen. The punch line of the very first Peanuts strip, published in 1950, had another character proclaiming of Brown, “How I hate him.” But playwright Bert V. Royal’s version of this icon, a character named C.B., is in for an even harder time.
The first scene uses a Peanuts convention, the letter to a pen pal, to announce how far Royal (also the writer of the current movie Easy A) intends to go. The Brown stand-in, C.B. (Rob Hill), relates how his beloved dog contracted rabies and tore to yellow shreds the bird with whom he shared a weirdly close cross-species friendship. The dog, of course, had to be put down. Snoopy mangles Woodstock, nearly mauls his owner, and is euthenized. And we’re off . . .
Snoopy was always the most joyous character in the Peanuts strip. By eliminating him, Royal announces his intention to immerse C.B. in an even grimmer existence than he has already had. The dimensions of this struggle are made explicit when C.B. chats to his friend Van (John Mac Schnurr), a Buddhist burnout, who explains to C.B. the danger of attachment:
VAN. The things we think define us, don’t mean shit in the grand scheme of things. Us defines us. Not things or other people or pets. Like, me without my blanket—it’s still me. I miss my fuckin’ blanket though. That was a dick thing y’all did.
CB. Three words for you, bro–Pubic. Lice. Infestation.
VAN. Could’ve been fixed.
CB. Hey, we let you keep the ashes.
VAN. I smoked ’em.
Royal has in mind for C.B. nothing less than Nothingness—that is, the prospect of being stripped of all the props of his identity and being brought face to face with a definitionless self.
Around him, half-familiar characters squirm in their own shifting, ill-fitting identities: C.B.’s sister (Meigg Jupin) concocts a gloomy and theatrical persona, and a one-woman show about a butterfly who dreams of being a platypus; the formerly slovenly Matt (Andrew James Poole) seems to have thrown himself into a tense dynamic of both body worship and homophobia; the inseparable Tricia and Marcy (Jennifer Van Iderstyne, Vivian Hwang) are insecure, vicious and promiscuous party girls; Van’s sister is institutionalized for a pyromaniacal assault; and the sensitive Beethoven (Ryan Moran), hides in the music room, playing Schubert.
At its funniest, Dog Sees God feels like Schulz’s characters transported to the Westerberg High of Heathers— and there are many very funny moments. The young cast is remarkably confident, and comfortable with the often crass material. Schnurr’s stoner is fun throughout, and Van Iderstyne and Hwang have moments of Saunders and French-like debauched charm.
But the play has darker currents, as well. Hate speech and bullying will, now, likely, forever invoke Columbine—and Dog Sees God is not merely a gleeful, potty-mouthed scandal. I’m not entirely certain that Royal quite manages to pull it off, the balance of humor and heavy, frankly. And the framing device that so boldly kicks the show off felt a bit watery to me at play’s end—as if Royal, himself, were uncomfortable with the Nothingness he invoked and felt the need to throw the characters or the audience a lifeline.
But the actors worked the strong points of the material, and soundly hit some remarkably subtle notes. In a scene of sibling rapprochement, Jupin simply conjured sadness and sympathy that were quiet and touching, however brief. And the lanky and dark-eyed Moran exuded a compelling kind of dignified doom, without which the ending would have been altogether too trite.