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Age the Peanuts cast into late adolescence, fit ’em out with enough troubled-teen disorders to make the Olsen twins anxious about earning their next 15 minutes, and strand ’em in the middle of Mean Girls: Now that’s a snarkalicious idea for a black comedy.
Not that anyone actually utters the name “Charlie Brown”; intellectual-property lawyers and other unpleasantnesses, y’know. But once that winsome shlub with the mustard-colored zigzag on his messenger bag recounts how his faithful pooch met his maker—a snarl, a smear of blood, and a pitiful pile of yellow feathers, alas, are all parts of the tale—then the pop-culture provenance of the characters in Dog Sees God will be clear to all but the biggest blockheads.
And if only Bert V. Royal’s off-Broadway hit would stick with that promisingly twisted start, it might be a nasty little pleasure. It’s not just that C.B.’s loss has left the protagonist, played by actor James Manno, in the existential dumps, after all. His pal Matt, the swaggering football hero (Robert Rector), has developed a coke habit, a gutter mouth, and a germ phobia so extreme that the mention of his childhood nickname—hell, even the word “swine”—sends him into a rage. Van, C.B.’s longhaired skater bud (Evan Casey), keeps himself comfortably, herbally numb most days, though any reference to a recent bit of interventional arson can still rile him a little: “I miss my fuckin’ blanket, man. That was a dick thing.” His fire-starter sister (Regina Aquino), whose victims have also included a certain red-haired girl, dispenses her 5-cent homilies from behind bars in juvie, and the tomboy (Catherine Deadman) has grown up to be a man-eating alpha female, mixing White Russians in her cafeteria half-pint with the hanger-on (Ryan Christie) who still occasionally slips and calls her “sir.”
Oh, and the quiet, sensitive pianist—well, how did the jocks at your high school treat that kid?
Yeah, I know: That’s where Dog Sees God goes to the dogs. Royal shifts from smartass to saccharine almost as soon as James Gardiner’s Beethoven makes his first appearance—decked out in lavender Chucks and a matching shirt buttoned up to the neck, plunking away at a keyboard at lunchtime, alone in the music room while the popular kids create their daily havoc in the cafeteria—and shortly afterward, the whole thing tips over into after-school-special melodrama. It’s a shame, too: C.B.’s unexpected romantic awakening, which may be the real deal or may just be a touchingly gallant gesture from a guy who knows he follows the pack too often, feels like the stuff of a bittersweet little storyline, and it might’ve paid off handsomely. But Royal short-circuits it with groaner developments involving the dangers of teenage difference and a tired old trope about repression and homophobes, and what starts out punchy ends up preachy.
Keith Alan Baker’s production boasts some snappy touches, though. The wittily minimalist set, a study in bright-colored AstroTurf and white-framed panels by Giorgos Tsappas, pays homage to the comic-strip universe while inviting characters to step through the frame. And a handful of appealing performances make solid work of the script’s sturdier stretches: Gardiner efficiently captures the bilious mix of resentment and loneliness and fear that kids like Beethoven end up having to live with (or sometimes, grimly, don’t), while Casey takes easy, unhurried drags on the bong of stoner humor, which somehow makes his Van seem the wisest and best-adjusted of the bunch. Deadman and Christie extract more laughs from the undercooked girl-clique subplot than you’d think possible (though even that isn’t much), and Manno makes C.B.’s awakening to his own aimlessness almost touching.
Only almost, though: The part’s too gracelessly written, once C.B. begins noodling out loud about his feelings, to make an actor’s work easy. By then, anyway, Royal has abandoned the pungent primary-colored adolescence he’s imagined for the Peanuts gang and started reaching for real-world relevance—and Dog Sees God has turned into a yawn as big as Snoopy’s.
How do we love Rick Hammerly? Let us count the ways: For the quizzical spangle of his cocked eyebrow, for the contemptuous curl of his lip-linered sneer, for the freshening breeze off his fluttering eyelashes and the shapelessness of the padded posterior shrink-wrapped in that Lurex tragedy of a jumpsuit. Yes, dear readers, Hammerly’s back, in drag and with a vengeance—and come to think of it, not since Dame Edna last descended on the National Theatre has there been such an alluringly artificial glamonstrosity on hand to demand your worship. Lucky us that Hammerly, whose Madeline Astarte represents roughly half of the camp circus that is the second half of Tramps and Vamps, is our very own homegrown diva.
The occasion is Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, second of two one-acts on a lopsided double-bill from the Actors Theatre of Washington—an unsteady reading of Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair fills the time before intermission—and the invaluable yin to Hammerly’s preening yang is Nanna Ingvarsson, whose 2,000-year-old Succubus likewise has a way of sinking her fangs grandiosely into a scene.
Charles Busch’s breakthrough comedy, a bit of ’80s-vintage silliness involving two Hollywood rivals whose bitter feud started way back in those biblical Twin Cities, plays like De Mille by way of Downtown: There’s a premium on exotic locations (Sodom! Hollywood! Vegas!) and razzle-dazzle (virgin sacrifices! gossip columnists! chorus boys!), and everyone understands that what other plays call the “plot” is merely a scaffolding upon which the stars are expected to—well, vamp.
And vamp they do: The leads claw and hiss with relish, and Jeffrey Johnson’s staging plays like vaudeville, so gleefully does it go for the broad laughs and the sharply honed, thoroughly shameless bits of business. (So firmly in cheek is this show’s tongue that Hammerly keeps score of his rim shots.) The cheerfully preposterous costumes (by Greg Stevens) and cheerfullier preposterouser wigs (by Ted Stumpf) are a spectacle all their own, which is just as it should be—several marabou appear to have been sacrificed in the service of Hammerly’s headdress for the Hollywood sequence, one of Ingvarsson’s more challenging ensembles involves not just Mardi Gras beads but peacock feathers and chandelier prisms, too, and the ingenious placement of a sheaf of coffee filters in the final scene nearly made me slide cackling out of my seat. Even the smaller players get in on the action: Ray Hagen’s priceless turn as a silent-movie-era butler is just one of a double handful of unhinged delights.
The Orton isn’t bad, just underwhelming, underfunny, and a little unclear. Worse, this acid-edged, class-conscious comedy feels unthreatening—and when Joe Orton can’t make an audience squirm, something’s amiss. Ruffian involves a skeevy London couple (Rosemary Regan and John C. Bailey) with pretensions to respectability, a queerly threatening (or maybe that should be threateningly queer) stranger (Ashley Ivey), and two murders—one offstage, preceding the action, and one onstage, ending it. Matty Griffiths’ production underscores the queerness, overstates both the skeeviness and the pretension, and leaves the murders feeling almost incidental. Come to think of it, it’s Orton, so that last is probably right on target; aside from Ivey’s oddly charismatic interloper, though, it’s about the only thing that is.CP