Bert V. Royal is the playwright stoked with enough chutzpah to imagine how Charlie Brown and pals -- almost all renamed here, presumably to avoid legal repercussions -- might behave in today's world of questionable mores. Not surprisingly, these characters have been drawn (so to speak) much darker than the jolly adventurers of Clark Gesner's authorized You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and the equally cheerful Snoopy!!! Royal's gang is into marijuana, fellatio, and advanced angst, and their vocabularies are full of the bluntest four-letter words. Still apparently unsupervised by elders, they have no qualms about flapping their unwashed-out mouths.
Although David Korins' set for the production at the Century Center Theatre is Charles Schulz-minimalist and bright -- complete with a show curtain featuring an empty red doghouse -- a number of disturbing incidents occur during this very funny 90-minute production, which comes across as a succession of live-action comic panels. The pivotal storyline concerns CB (played by the sweet, sympathetic Eddie Kaye Thomas) discovering his attraction to the piano-playing Beethoven (a tremulous Logan Marshall-Green). The complication is that the latter resists CB's advances, in part because he's being menaced by a bully called Matt (a glowering Ian Somerhalder), who's undoubtedly based on Schulz's Pigpen. Matt's homophobia may spring from his own repressed homosexual urges towards CB, but that makes little difference in the actions he takes.
Elsewhere among the group -- which no longer includes Snoopy and Woodstock, both deceased in the aftermath of an attack on the latter by the former -- Van (the always on-the-nose Keith Nobbs) has burned his security blanket and smoked the ashes, CB's Sister (tough little America Ferrera) is experiencing Goth growing pains, and Van's Sister (Eliza Dushku, knowing as hell) is dispensing doctor's advice from the loony bin where her arson problem is being analyzed. Best friends Tricia (the nubile Kelli Garner) and Marcy (the strutting Ari Graynor) have billowed into two babes in high heels and micro-minis whose heads would quickly deflate if the air was suddenly let out of them. (Jenny Mannis is the witty costume designer.)
The joy of Dog Sees God, the palindromic title of which acknowledges some of the larger pretensions that others have grandly attributed to Schulz's work, is in the irreverence it shows towards something that was always blissfully irreverent in its own right. Not every vignette works, even as directed by the crafty Trip Cullman; Van's pot addiction grows tiresome, for example, while the Marcy-Tricia babelicious competition becomes shrill. And the moralistic ending, which concerns the aftermath of Matt attacking Beethoven for his possible homosexuality, will strike many observers as excessively grim.
But Royal isn't just school-boyishly poking fun at a beloved artifact. For sure, he's taking shots at Peanuts while delighting fans of that cultural phenomenon every step of the way; the more references they pick up on, the more they love what they're seeing. But the playwright is also looking from Schulz's perspective at the screwy standards by which today's teens, tweens, and older adolescents are forced to shape their lives. He understands, as Schulz did, the difficulties involved in figuring out workable solutions. Perhaps that's why the Schulz estate has so far kept mum about the unrelentingly scatological enterprise; or perhaps they recognize that Dog Sees God, in its cockamamie way, honors Schulz's enduring contribution to American literature and his half-century-long insights into the everyday peccadilloes that both plague and placate the common man and woman.