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'Doctor Cerberus' gives a dose of teen reality

(c) Press-Telegramm Long Beach

April 22, 2010

By A.K. Whitney

Jamison Jones (Dr. Cerberus), back, and Brett Ryback (Franklin) star in South Coast Repertory's world premiere of "Doctor Cerberus." (Photo courtesy of Henry DiRocco/SCR)
Being 13 is usually not a lot of fun. You're too old to be treated like a child, yet too young to be treated like an adult.

And if you're socially awkward and overweight, and your older siblings treat you like dirt and your parents despair of you, early adolescence can feel a lot like a scary movie you just want to escape.

In "Doctor Cerberus," which had its world premiere at South Coast Repertory over the weekend, playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa explores the terrors of being a misfit teenager in the early '80s on the East Coast.

His protagonist, Franklin, is an aspiring writer; he is also overweight and sure he is gay. Franklin escapes from his overbearing family by being obsessed with all things horror: movies, books and comic books. His favorite show is "Nightmare Theater," hosted by Dr. Cerberus. The campy host (the Virginia equivalent of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), introduces the schlocky horror fare every week, and Franklin is such a fan he writes the doctor letters constantly, though he never gets a reply.

Can Franklin survive adolescence? And will he ever meet his hero? Those answers, and more, are in the show.

The SCR production is directed by Bart DeLorenzo, who has put together a great cast, including Brett Ryback, who first took on the Franklin role last year when "Cerberus" was still a spec script submitted to SCR's Pacific Playwrights Festival.

Ryback plays a convincing teen; his Franklin is plaintive yet self-centered and not always easy to deal with (as often is the case with teens).

The only quibble here is that he isn't really overweight. It's understandable, particularly since the character ages and slims down during the show, that it would require an actor who was able to undergo a transformation. (Or - here's a crazy thought - cast one actor as a chubby child and another as a slim adult?) But Ryback is quite slender, and just adding a fake belly isn't enough to make the illusion complete.

Apart from that, Ryback has plenty of comic timing and talent for the part, and has no problem carrying the show.

Franklin's parents are played by Steven Culp and Candy Buckley. "Desperate Housewives" fans should recognize Culp as Bree's ill-fated first husband, Rex, and Culp once again plays a husband with a domineering wife in this show.

But Culp is more than a frustrated milquetoast here. He does a nice job playing a man who genuinely loves his kids, particularly his bizarre youngest son. Lawrence Robertson just fails as a parent because he lacks the vision to see that not all compromises are inevitable, and that his own life would have been more satisfying had he not given up so soon.

Buckley plays Franklin's mother, Lydia. Lydia is a complex character, and Buckley doesn't hold back on behaving, as one son says, like a "bitch." But Lydia is just profoundly unhappy because she also has made far too many compromises, but unlike her husband, she has some vision and knows they may have been unnecessary. However, she now believes it's too late to change anything for the better.

Jarrett Sleeper plays Franklin's older brother Rodney. Rodney is everything Franklin isn't - popular, athletic and good-looking. But Aguirre-Sacasa resists making him a stereotype, so Rodney gets some depth as well - his biggest strength is that he doesn't resent his little brother's talent - and he becomes an unlikely ally.

Jamison Jones plays multiple roles, from the flamboyant Dr. Cerberus to Franklin's English teacher to Rodney's crude jock friend. But he is best as Lydia's brother, a gay screenwriter who sees himself in Franklin and mentors his nephew as much as he can.

Jamison and Buckley have a good rapport as brother and sister, and it's clear the siblings love each other. But Lydia can't get over her jealousy that her brother was able to fulfill some of his dreams while she didn't, and a lot of her issues with Franklin stem from that.

All in all, Aguirre-Sacasa's script is hardly groundbreaking. Many movies, plays and books have covered adolescent angst and escape. But that doesn't mean Franklin's story isn't worth telling, or worth watching.

It will be interesting to see how far this show goes. SCR has seen quite a few of its world premieres hit the big time.

Doctor Cerberus

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through May 2.

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

Tickets: $20-$65.

Information: 714-708-5555 or

Our rating: Three stars

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