Brett Ryback, Candy Buckley, Steven Culp,
and Jamison Jones in Doctor Cerberus
(Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory)
Brett Ryback, Candy Buckley, Steven Culp,
and Jamison Jones in Doctor Cerberus
(Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory)
Who hasn't spent some part of their teenage years glued to the television watching late-night horror films hosted by a campy local celebrity? From Vampira in the 1950s to Elvira in the 1980s, schlock and shock have gone hand in claw. Robert Aguirre-Sacasa's Doctor Cerberus, now premiering at South Coast Repertory as part of the theater's 13th Annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, begins as a delightful homage to those late-night TV hosts and their devoted geeky followers.

Tombstones in front of the curtain, howling wolves on the sound system, a devilish face floating on the curtain, all before the show starts, what could be more fun? The appearance of Doctor Cerberus (Jamison Jones) himself is not a letdown, as this vampire-inspired host introduces Firestarter starring George C. Scott "just before he fired his agent" and Drool Evermore.

As it happens, 13-year-old Franklin (Brett Ryback, completely convincing), devoted watcher and dedicated fan letter writer, is so engrossed in the film he doesn't realize his own house is on fire. His parents are very fond of calling "family meetings" and the resulting one is a doozy, since the fire was a result of Franklin's hairspray can blowtorching of his beloved action figures. His virago of a mother, Lydia, (Candy Buckley in an over-the-top but controlled turn) lays down the law: no TV, no comic books, no toys. His meek father (Stephen Culp, giving a richly nuanced performance) follows along, while big bullying brother Rodney (Jarrett Sleeper) is angered at being disciplined for something he didn't do.

By setting the work in 1983, the playwright is able to weave in such cultural milestones as the family viewing of the nuclear disaster TV movie The Day After and a family trip to view the King Tut exhibit. The time period also allows Aguirre-Sacasa to explore the fear of AIDS -- in the person of Lydia's younger brother Jack (played as are all the other characters by the talented and versatile Jones), a TV writer recovering from a brain tumor. Jack encourages Franklin in his writing and in his makeover from a pudgy gawky kid. But when Jack reveals to Lydia he actually had AIDS lesions, she banishes him from the house and from any contact with her family. (Franklin's budding homosexuality has already been shown in his attraction to one of Rodney's jock friends.)

Under Bart DeLorenzo's sure-handed direction, the first act is primarily a laugh riot with the playwright mining the depths of dysfunctional family life as well as campy horror classics to their full extent. The second act, set four years later, is a virtual horror tale of its own, as Franklin's parents, bitter over their own lost dreams, try their best to destroy any glimmer of happiness in their children. It's an abrupt twist, but the talents of the playwright, director, and the excellent cast make it play out splendidly.

The production's technical aspects are all superb as well. Keith Mitchell's simple but effective scenic design is enhanced by Christopher Ash's projections and video design. Shigeru Yaji's costume design and Rand Ryan's lighting are spot-on, while Steven Cahill's sound design and original music are an equally integral part of this extremely worthwhile evening.