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'Doctor Cerberus' melds comedy, tragedy at SCR

Story Highlights: New coming-of-age play tackles tough issues with comedy, delicacy.

(c) The Orange County Register

April 18, 2010



By Paul Hodgins

From left, Steven Culp, Brett Ryback, Jerrett Sleeper and Candy Buckley rehearse "Doctor Cerberus," which is set in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in the mid-1980s. A 13-year-old Franklin Robertson, played by Ryback, would rather write stories than go on dates. It is directed by Bart DeLorenzo and runs at the South Coast Repertory April 11 to May 2.
Franklin Robertson, the character at the center of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's new play, "Doctor Cerberus," is one unhappy 13-year-old.

Franklin's mother Lydia is a mean-spirited, controlling whack job. His dad, Lawrence, crushes Franklin's dreams of being a writer with "do the sensible thing" advice. His jock-ish older brother Rodney is a bully who cares for nothing other than his beloved Washington Redskins.

And Franklin knows he is gay – a less-than-well-kept secret that is making life increasingly difficult for a kid growing up in foursquare Silver Spring, Maryland in the early 1980s.

Franklin's only escape from his unpromising life is Doctor Cerberus, a "creature feature" host on the local TV station who introduces each week's schlocky gore-fest with a spiel that's equal parts camp and Grand Guignol. Franklin writes him regularly with words of praise and admiration, and when the ghoulish doctor announces that he's looking for a youthful assistant, Franklin believes his big moment has arrived.

That's the bare bones (pun intended) of Aguirre-Sacasa's plot, and as you might imagine it sets up many opportunities for laugh lines and puckish observations about coming of age gay and frustrated in Middle America.

But in this taut and entertaining world-premiere production at South Coast Repertory, Aguirre-Sacasa's play quickly shrugs of its sitcom trappings. In its darkest moments, "Doctor Cerberus" sails into the deep waters of theater's favorite sea of tragedy, dysfunctional-family drama. It's no wonder Franklin's parents make references to classical mythology: "Doctor Cerberus" recalls passions, themes and characters as old as the Greeks.

The story begins with a disciplinary meeting. Franklin almost burned the house down after stashing the evidence from a pyrotechnic prank in a woodpile. Rodney also catches flak for failing to watch over his younger brother. It's one of those painful yet funny episodes that will seem familiar to anybody who grew up with siblings and matches around the house.

This scene and others in the first act reveal Lawrence and Lydia's underlying frustrations as well.

Lydia feels trapped and belittled by her family obligations and her men. "You've broken my heart – all of you!" she announces as she trounces off at the end of the upbraiding session.

The story's saddest chapter involves Uncle Jack, Lydia's younger brother (played with understated élan by Jamison Jones, who does multiple duty as the mellifluous Doctor Cerberus and other supporting characters).

A writer for "Cagney and Lacy," he's a hero to Franklin, and the teen is thrilled when his parents announce that Jack is coming to live with them while he recovers from a brain tumor. Jack and Franklin are kindred spirits, and he lights a fire under the boy, coaching him with his writing, encouraging him to lose weight and inspiring him by showing him how a writing career could be possible.

But Jack leaves suddenly under mysterious circumstances. His departure is a blow that Franklin finds hard to bear, and it leads to a confrontation with his mother that's as heavy and fraught with raw emotion as anything Tennessee Williams ever penned. At moments such as this you realize what a cunning trick the playwright has performed: slipping a heartrending tragedy into the sleeve of a domestic comedy and somehow making them work in concert.

Director Bart DeLorenzo is a proven master with the tragicomic tone this material requires – at SCR he directed Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone" and the world premiere of Donald Margulies' "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment." There's a knife-edge to be walked between tongue-in-cheek comedy and dead-serious passion, and for the most part DeLorenzo and his cast find the right balance, although the first scene seems tonally awkward and less convincing than what follows.

Brett Ryback's Franklin is a touching portrait of a young creative mind trying to find its outlet, and he brings subtle changes to his character in the second act, which takes place four years after the first.

Jarrett Sleeper conveys all the tricks and traits of the bullying older brother. His character's transformation into a better person at the end of the story is a wise choice on the playwright's part, and Sleeper convincingly sells the shift.

Steven Culp's Lawrence and Candy Buckley's Lydia are two starkly contrasting manifestations of mid-life disappointment.

Culp is a picture of quiet desperation, a man who channels his rage into ostensibly well-meaning advice to his sons.

Buckley's character rages openly against her fate. She's a wounded lioness, and when we finally get to the root of her pain in the second act, the actress delivers a quiet and self-damning soliloquy almost too painful to hear. It's a spellbinding moment, and Buckley is magnificent.

Keith Mitchell's scenic design amplifies much of the play's comedy, especially Doctor Cereberus' cheesy TV-studio lair. Christopher Ash provides large video images of Cerberus' show, as well as scenes from the horror classics Cerberus hosts, on a large upstage screen.

Their scenic conception works hand in glove with DeLorenzo's sure-footed direction, which plumbs the depths of this thoughtful and multi-layered script. "Doctor Cerberus" is much like its teen protagonist: much more substantial that it first seems.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7979 or phodgins@ocregister.com


'Doctor Cerberus'

Where: Argyros Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Through May 2. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

How much: $28-$65

Tickets: 714-708-5555

Online: www.scr.org



More pictures that were published in the article:
From left, Steven Culp, Brett Ryback, Jerrett Sleeper and Candy Buckley rehearse "Doctor Cerberus," which is set in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in the mid-1980s. A 13-year-old Franklin Robertson, played by Ryback, would rather write stories than go on dates. It is directed by Bart DeLorenzo and runs at the South Coast Repertory April 11 to May 2.
Photo by Cindy Yamanaka / The Orange County Register

The Robertsons watch a movie together in a scene from "Doctor Cerberus."
Photo by Henry Dirocco / SCR

The Robertson family visits an exhibit of ancient Egyptian treasures in a scene from "Doctor Cerberus." Photo by Henry Dirocco / SCR

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