LYNN — Let’s face it, growing up is hell. Mistakes and bad decisions are inevitable while teens navigate one challenge after another on the road to adulthood.
Should Charlie Brown and the “Peanuts” gang be freed from such angst while the rest of us suffer? Of course not: kids are kids, all fumbling their way through life.
That’s the premise behind “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead,” the stunning season opener for Arts After Hours, the city’s edgy community theater company. You will roar with laughter at some of the clever asides and liberties playwright Bert V. Royal takes with his “Peanuts” characters, but this is much more than a parody. By the end of this 90-minute, no-intermission show you’ll find yourself choking back tears, because you come to love these kids, even though secrets kept and unwise choices have kidnapped their happiness and derailed their dreams. The “Peanuts” gang is struggling to survive high school.
This unexpected emotional power punch is provided by a uniformly excellent cast that makes you care deeply about their characters. There aren’t many growing pains with this production, expertly directed by Catherine M. Bertrand. It’s excellent.
After a “Linus and Lucy” instrumental intro and a few verses of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” the show starts with a blast of dark humor. CB’s (Zack Page) dog has died of rabies, gotten from the little yellow bird that hovered around his doghouse, and CB starts questioning whether there’s an afterlife. He reads aloud from a letter he sent to a pen pal, C.S. (Charles Schulz?), who has never written back, and laments why all of his friends skipped the dog’s funeral.
Oh, those poor friends! CB’s sister (Courtney Plati, in the Sally role) is a lost soul, hoping the Wiccan philosophy can bring her some joy; Van (Bruno Barbuto, in the Linus role) is a pothead in search of inner peace; and Van’s sister (Brit Christopher, in the Lucy role) has been confined to a psych ward since setting a little redheaded girl’s hair on fire.
Let’s not forget about Matt (Nick Bennett-Zendzian, in the Pig Pen role), a vulgar, backward-cap-wearing frat boy who talks constantly about sexual conquests and belittles might-be-gay classmate Beethoven (Chris Reade, in the Schroeder role), who escapes being bullied by retreating into the world of Chopin’s piano works. BFFs Marcy (Ashleigh Reade), who downplays her intelligence, and Tricia (Samantha Laney, in the Peppermint Patty role) pour vodka into the single-serving milk carton that comes with their school lunch and restlessly live for the next party.
Page and Chris Reade are standouts, sharing several intense scenes and a shocking kiss. You’re a good man, CB. Ashleigh Reade and Laney provide lots of laughs, until they realize there’s little for them to laugh about. Bennett-Zendzian is scary good, exploding from one rage to the next, and Barbuto is blissfully oblivious as the stoner. Christopher, too, is wonderfully amusing as Van’s “sociopath” sister; she and Page have great chemistry together.
High-schoolers and college students will really enjoy “Dog Sees God.” The younger audience members at Sunday’s matinee laughed and nodded in recognition many times during the performance. The take-away: Teens should celebrate what makes them different. Why would anyone want to be just like someone else, even one of the cliquey “cool kids,” who are silently struggling to discover themselves, too. Even as they’re counting their money, I bet those braindead Kardashians question their choices and doubt themselves from time to time.
As that wise philosopher Snoopy once said, “Be yourself. No one can say you’re doing it wrong.” Great advice.
Arts After Hours’ production of “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead” is at the Neal Rantoul Black Box Theater in the LynnArts building, 25 Exchange St., through Sunday. www.artsafterhours.com.