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Review - 'Doctor Cerberus'

(c) Stage Scene Los Angeles

April 18, 2010

By Steven Stanley

Photo by Henry Dirocco / SCR
It's the mid-1980s and Franklin Robertson is a "husky" 13-year-old geek with a passion for late night scary movies. If horror host Doctor Cerberus is on the air, you can be sure that young Franklin will be in front of his TV set, enraptured. Tonight, the Transylvanian-accented Doctor ("with a Ph.D in Fear") is screening "an American classic in the tradition of Citizen Kane and Gone With The Wind," 1984's Firestarter, starring Drew Barrymore and George C. Scott "just before he fired his agent."

Welcome to Franklin's world in Doctor Cerberus, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's wonderfully special world premiere comedy, now playing at South Coast Repertory.

Franklin lives in Silver Springs, Maryland with his parents Lawrence and Lydia and older brother Rodney, and if it weren't for Doctor Cerberus, his life might even more hellish than it already is. Dad is the kind of father who's certain he knows what's best for his kids and has, in fact, already got their lives planned out for them. Mom is a pill-popping, booze-guzzling drama queen who, when ticked off about something (say, the fire that nearly burned down their house), is likely to threaten to "go Oliver Twist on this family!" Older bro, meanwhile, gets his kicks out of calling Franklin names like "retard fat ass faggot" and "Sherlock Homo." (Did I mention that Franklin is gay?)

Now some of you out there may think that 13 is too young for a kid to know whether he's gay or not, and that in any case, children only become homosexual when they are "recruited into the gay lifestyle."

Photo by Henry Dirocco / SCR
Franklin knows better. He's got the teenage hots for movie star Steve Guttenberg (who just happens to look just like Franklin's very first crush), has no interest whatsoever in viewing Titty Titty Gang Bang with Rodney, and sits glued to the TV screen during post-game locker room interviews, hence the stockload of sports trivia in his nerdy, bespectacled head.

As for dreams, Franklin has two big ones. The first is to become a writer. The other is to somehow get hired as Doctor Cerberus's "assistant slash cryptographer." In the meantime, he only has to survive a family that watches the TV movie The Day After together as a way of inspiring a "family chat about nuclear war."

Fortunately, "bachelor uncle" Jack's recuperative visit (following the removal of a brain tumor) means that someone at last will really listen to Franklin, take the time to read his stories, and offer words of encouragement and literary advice, that is until the day Franklin returns home to find Jack no longer there. "We asked him to leave," Franklin's mother informs him, seething with cold anger. "It wasn't a brain tumor. It was brain LESIONS!"

Photo by Henry Dirocco / SCR
Like last year's justifiably lauded Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins, Aguirre-Sacasa's absolutely wonderful Doctor Cerberus is a brilliantly conceived look at family and societal dynamics in a not so long ago era. Whereas Anita Bryant focused on the '70s with its burgeoning gay rights movement and the movement's Florida orange juice-hawking former beauty queen nemesis, Doctor Cerberus points its nostalgic/acidic lens on the Reagan years, the decade in which the AIDS epidemic became part of the national consciousness, touching families as "All American" as Franklin's.

I loved Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins and I love Doctor Cerberus every bit as much. Both plays have an irreverent humor, complex, dysfunctional (and highly unpredictable) families, and a young hero whose journey we eagerly follow through those difficult early teen years into young adulthood.

Director Bart DeLorenzo and Aguirre-Sacasa's script are a match made in heaven. The director "gets" Doctor Cerberus's brand of humor, and the performances he elicits from his stellar cast are gems.

The inimitable Franklin is brought to vivid, adorable, heartbreaking, cheer-worthy life by Brett Ryback, one of L.A. theater's best and most versatile young talents. The composer-singer-playwright-musician-actor wears only one of those hats here, but does so brilliantly, making Franklin a gay teen hero sure to inspire (and elucidate) theatergoers of any age. Aguirre-Sacasa has written for Ryback a role which combines innocence, irreverence, wisdom, outrage, imagination, and youthful zeal, and Ryback knocks it out of the ballpark.

Photo by Henry Dirocco / SCR
Each of Ryback's castmates hits a homerun as well, beginning with Candy Buckley as Lydia, giving one of the most gutsy, colorful, multi-layered performances of the year as a Mommie Dearest with a heart, if not of gold, then at least certainly not of ice. As Lawrence, an excellent Steven Culp creates a father who only thinks he knows best, and if you believe you'll be able to predict either Mom's or Dad's reactions to their son's coming out (or his dreams to study Creative Writing at NYU), think again. The same can be said for a very hunky (and talented) Jarrett Sleeper as older brother Rodney, a teenager who can verbally gay bash Franklin one minute, say things like "Just because I like sports and take care of my body doesn't mean I don't have an inner life" the next, and quite possibly turn out to be his brother's greatest champion. Finally, there's the amazingly versatile Jamison Jones, terrific as all get-out as the campy Doctor Cerberus (both live and on film), as well as cameo turns as the Robertsons' Chinese neighbor, Franklin's gym teacher from hell, wise Uncle Jack, and Franklin's not-so-encouraging English teacher, each of whom contributes unpredictably to Franklin's coming of age.

Keith Mitchell's terrific set design undergoes numerous transitions— from Doctor Cerberus's cheesy lair to the Robertsons' suburban home to the King Tut exhibit at the National History Museum. Mitchell is greatly aided by Christopher Ash's upstage projections, which include scenes from schlock movie classics like Freaks and The Blob, and the TV nuclear holocaust melodrama The Day After. Shigeru Yagi's costumes run the gamut from the horror host's black-and-red fright outfit to Ryback's padded husky-wear to the Robertson family's 1980s duds. Rand Ryan's lighting is equally fine—and eclectic—from realistic effects to horrorific greens and to flashes of lightning. Steven Cahill's original music and his sound design contribute greatly to the play's shifting moods. There's even a Robertson Family group cha-cha to a ditty called "The Mummy." Kathryn Davies is production stage manager.

Families may no longer fit the 1950s TV mode, and in many cases, may turn out to be people we end up "surviving," but like Franklin, we generally come out better for having had one. Doctor Cerberus is a winner from its campy opening to its entirely satisfying ending.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Through May 2. Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:45, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:45. Reservations: (714) 708-5552

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