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Good Grief

In Bert Royal's imagination, teenage Peanuts characters still make us cynical and hopeful.

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My favorite Peanuts comes from late February 1956. In it, Charlie Brown explains to Lucy that she's wrong to insist that the sidewalks of their faceless suburb are "pointed." In the second panel, he shoves a dictionary in her face, shouting that it's a trick of perspective that makes them seem to come together way off in the distance. In the third, she eyes him blankly, in silence, measuring out a beat before asking, in the fourth, "Why do you always wear that silly shirt with that stupid stripe on it?"

This kind of palate-cleansing non sequitur is a hallmark of American comedy — check Steve Carell in any episode of The Office or Homer Simpson announcing that he has named a big possum "Bitey." It's also a hallmark of America, period. Remember Lucy's hostile cluelessness the next time you hear someone dismiss evidence of global warming with the observation, "Yeah, well, Al Gore flies around in a private jet." Richer still is Lucy's offhand cruelty — and what climate-change apologist wouldn't recognize Charlie Brown's overbearing need to disabuse her, to be right?

When I say that this single strip contains more joy, pain and insight than all of Bert Royal's Charlie Brown satire, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, I mean no disrespect. Royal is going up against Peanuts, for Christ's sake, a five-decade masterpiece that's tied with James Brown among the few artistic breakthroughs that made the 20th century worthwhile. Sensing this, Royal tips his scared cow with some reverence, imagining how these characters would fare as teenagers in our world. He crams modern pop into stately old Peanuts, stripping away Charles Schulz's abstract beauty and near-universal pathos but not his pain or heart.

Royal cornholes Schulz's gentle decency, though. Charlie Brown says "fuck" a lot. Marcie says "cunt," Pigpen is a homophobic shitbox and pothead Linus has smoked his own blanket. The show opens with Snoopy's funeral: Seems the MET Life beagle snacked on Woodstock, contracted rabies and wound up at the end of a vet's syringe. C.B. and his little sister — these trademarked characters, of course, are never called by their real names — hold a sad little service and wind up screaming "Fuck you" at each other some half-dozen times.

This opening neither shocks nor engages — it comes on too strong and too dark, revealing little of Royal's (and director Steven Eubank's) smart, humanistic take on the characters. A couple of quick scenes later, the show flares to wild life with the introduction of Marcie (Mandy Mook) and Peppermint Patty (Kelly Jo Blake), a pair of boozing high school floozies, each given perfect little arias of bitchy outrage. Getting loaded on Kahlua and vodka in the school cafeteria, they jabber relentlessly, filthily, about boys they've done and boys they'll do, about the history of the spork or "fatty-fat fucking Frida's fat fucking ass" or how Marcie better not start calling Patty "sir" again. The wild talk explodes from Blake and Mook like sparkle from a glitter gun.

Things get better still. Piano man Schroeder (Bryan LaFave) is still an artsy type, and much of the school calls him "faggot." Meanwhile, Charlie Brown (Matthew Koenen), who has left loserdom for a vaguely jockish, midlevel popularity, once again finds himself at odds with his peers — in a surprising way, he again winds up loving the skinniest tree in the lot. Unfortunately, a third-act detour into tragedy and a conclusion steeped in a meta-fictional sentimentality sap some of the power.

Some of Royal's changes aren't cruel. Stoned Linus (the appealing Sean Hogge) is still something of a gentle philosopher, and some of his speeches are for the ages. At one point, as Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here" tinkles dolefully behind him, he lectures the entire lunchroom on the ghastliness of Mexican pizza: "Fuck, man, why don't we just have tacos?"

Lucy, played by Vanessa Severo with a terrible grace and fits of serrated laughter, still spews bullshit, still measures out exquisite silences and still charges Charlie Brown a nickel for help assuaging the psychological damage she's partly inflicted. Still, she's the biggest surprise in the show: adolescent and troubled, of course, but at last possessed of perspective. Severo commands the show's most affecting moments. As she hangs with C.B., we feel a lifetime's worth of emotion between them; later, in a well-directed dream sequence, she dances hauntingly. Sometimes, she even says something encouraging without yanking it away at the last moment.

Both lashingly funny and honestly moving, Dog Sees God picks at Peanuts instead of picking on it. Obsessed with failure and alienation, with our spite and our perseverance, Schulz's strip was always more about us than about the little folks populating it. Royal's play is also about us, about how, shaped by Schulz, we grew up aware of the world's coldness. Somehow, though, even in a world where nothing is sacred, we ache for Charlie Brown to turn out all right.

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