Imagine that film director John Hughes somehow got permission to do a treatment of the Peanuts comic strip gang—only 10 years later, when the whole ever-so-winsome crew finds itself inexorably trapped in the throes of hormones and high school. Imagine further that Hughes enlisted John Waters to help him write the script, and that, for obvious legal reasons, he changed all the characters' names.
That's about as succinct a summary as I can offer for playwright Bert Royal's Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, the entertaining season closer at Raleigh Ensemble Players. Sadly, the years have not been kind to the famous sandbox set by the time that "CB," that likeable but angst-ridden central character, is filling in his pen(cil) pal on all the changes going down. For starters, Snoopy's dead—and apparently he took Woodstock with him. For the rest of the post-pubescent Peanuts gang, let's just say that Robyn Hitchcock's otherwise sage advice in "Uncorrected Personality Traits" ("Uncorrected personality traits that seem whimsical in a child may prove to be ugly in a fully grown adult") had a too-generous time line. By the time of this 11th-grade update, three of the crew are self-medicating, with pot or with imaginative (and flammable) additions to the chocolate milk. Two are acting out, in pyromania and performance art. And bullying from a jock, as well as systemic homophobia, means that the gay guy is simply trying to get out of high school in one piece.
For decades, comedians and cartoonists, including Denis Leary, Bloom County's Berkeley Breathed and Stephan Pastis, of Pearls Before Swine, have lampooned the supposedly sordid private lives comic strip characters lead outside the daily frames.
But something crucial sets Royal's script and this REP production apart from the common herd. Under Glen Matthews' direction, what easily could have been disposable, one-joke characters in sketch-grade situations gain appreciable depth as the consequences of their choices accumulate.
Popular mean girls Tricia York (the Peppermint Patty character, played by a tart Jess Barbour) and Marcy (the Marcie character, played by sharp Lori Ingle) keep things sweet and snarky until their underlying insecurities start to show. Hillary Aarons' reductive, bratty take on "CB's Sister" (the actual name of the character, and of course, based on Sally) ultimately deepens into something more desperate. Joey Osuna's Van, the Linus character, is stoned but still perceptive, while Eric Morales effectively mines the hidden fears of Matt, the latter-day Pig-Pen.
In keeping too many trickster options open for a Lucy character who's been institutionalized, Matthews and actor Sheryl Scott leave that role, called Van's Sister, a bit indistinct. On the other hand, Matthews gets a series of rewarding character notes I haven't seen before from Thomas Porter, in a moving performance as Beethoven, the Schroeder stand-in. And, as good ol' CB, Bryan Burton finds the requisite humor, dread and honesty.
In the lunchroom, the classroom and the commons, these too-familiar children act hard-edged and shirk all responsibility for one another—until some just can't any longer. Royal's jokes turn, as what began as a satirical broadside reveals an unexpected heart. Beyond the initial novelty, the salient question in this play of substituted names is no longer "Which Peanuts character was he (or she)?" Instead, the issue becomes, "Which one were we?"