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Theater Review: 'Doctor Cerberus' return for playwrights festival

(c) North County Time

April 21, 2010

By Pam Kragen

This weekend, South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa presents is 13th annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, Southern California's largest and most successful showcase of new works by American playwrights.

The three-day festival opening Friday features staged readings of five new plays by major playwrights including Amy Freed, Itamar Moses and Safia Alvarez, as well as full productions of two plays that were introduced as readings at last year's festival ---- Julia Cho's "The Language Archive" and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's "Doctor Cerberus."

The "Doctor Cerberus" reading last year was the hit of the festival and it arrived this month as the season's most hotly anticipated show, but the play still feels uneven in tone, content and flow and it needs cuts. "Language Archive," on the other hand, shows great promise, with wonderful comic roles for two of SCR's most-beloved actors, and a script that's both whimsical and poetic.

"Doctor Cerberus"

Plays through May 2

Julianne Argyros Stage

Jamison Jones, Brett Ryback, Steven Culp, Candy Buckley and Jarrett Sleeper in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's "Doctor Cerberus" at South Coast Repertory.
Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR.
Fall-down funny is how last year's reading of "Doctor Cerberus" was described by those in attendance, but the full-scale production now playing at SCR falls short. Many of the jokes fall flat or feel forced, particularly in a cringe-worthy opening scene with the Robertson family. Although most of the cast is good, and some scenes really crackle with intensity, the play feels unfinished. Characters are introduced, then disappear; the tone varies from black comedy to family drama and back again; one character's motivations are mystifying; and there's entirely too much of Doctor Cerberus.

Playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa based the play on his own boyhood experiences as a gay, overweight teen obsessed with creature feature TV in suburban 1980s Maryland. His teen self, Franklin Robertson, is marvelously brought to life onstage by hyper-talented Orange County actor Brett Ryback (T-Rex in last year's wonderful "Imagine"). Ryback has an innate charm, boyishness and naturalism that makes his character believable, even when some of the other characters and events around him are hard to buy.

The concept here is that Franklin's life has become a horror movie, much like the old fright-night films he watches around the clock in his parents' shabby basement, hosted on the local TV station by "Doctor Cerberus," a campy vampire/mad scientist with a cheesy accent. Like the characters in these films, Franklin is haunted by his bullying older brother Rodney, a sex- and football-obsessed jock; terrorized by his liquor-swilling, pill-popping, knife-waving mom, Lydia; and beaten down emotionally by his loving but unsupportive dad, Lawrence.

Franklin dreams big ---- he wants to co-host Doctor Cerberus's TV show and he wants to become a horror novelist. Offering a brief ray of hope is the arrival of Franklin's uncle, a gay television writer from Hollywood who mentors Franklin's writing and builds up his self-esteem, but he's soon sent packing for mysterious reasons, and Franklin retreats once again to the dark dungeon basement below.

It's a long, tortuous journey to adulthood, self-acceptance and success for Franklin. At least it feels that way with Aguirre-Sacasa's overlong script, which could use about five fewer visits to Doctor Cerberus' TV set, and the elimination of a couple of unnecessary characters and scenes. Both of the play's acts end abruptly, and it's never clear why Franklin's loud, abrasive mother is so needlessly cruel.

What's good about the play are the honest scenes between Franklin and his brother Rodney (played with a nice character arc by Jarrett Sleeper), and between Franklin and his father, Lawrence (Steven Culp in an understated, appealing performance). Rodney's character feels authentic, a typical bullying, salty-tongued teen who matures into the caring protector for his vulnerable kid brother. And the two scenes between Franklin and his dad are the best in the play ---- first as Lawrence tentatively questions his son about his sexuality at age 13, and then four years later, when the well-meaning but misguided Lawrence crushes Franklin's writing ambitions by saying he should aim lower because he's probably not a good enough writer to succeed.

Jamison Jones is a terrific utility player as Doctor Cerberus, Franklin's uncle, his teacher and Rodney's buddy Sean, but many of these characters feel extraneous to the plot. As the play nears its end, Franklin hits the road, comically jogging in place as he narrates quickly through the experiences of his college years. It's symbolic of the play, which seems to rush through too many experiences without a coherent and concise through-line. With work, there may be a very good play in there somewhere. And kudos to South Coast Rep for producing a play that pushes Orange County's conservative boundaries with realistic teenspeak (I'm talking "Superbad" language here) and a gay coming-of-age story.

"Doctor Cerberus"

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through May 2

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

Tickets: $20-$65

Info: 714-708-5555

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