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Theater review: 'Doctor Cerberus' at South Coast Repertory

April 20, 2010 |  2:21 pm

Doctorc Who is scarier, the Mummy or Medea? And is there any paranormal activity more chilling than Mary Tyrone haunted by her past in "Long Day's Journey Into Night"?

Ever since "Oedipus," the theater has known that there's nothing like family to spook us out. And home is certainly where the horror is in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's "Doctor Cerberus," a sweet and canny portrait of the artist as a young fanboy, now playing at South Coast Repertory.

Thirteen-year-old Franklin Robertson (Brett Ryback) is "husky," closeted and marooned in 1980s suburban D.C. This would-be writer idolizes Dr. Cerberus (Jamison Jones), the cheesy vampire host of a local television station's late show, "Nightmare Theatre." Cerberus, with his campy cape and bad puns, seems less freakish than Franklin's own family: Redskins-obsessed older brother Rodney (Jarrett Sleeper) tortures his younger sibling even in gym class ("Sherlock Homo!"). Their brittle parents (Candy Buckley and Steven Culp), suffering a strained marriage and dreary jobs, steadily undermine their sons' dreams. It doesn't take long to wonder who the real monsters are here.

A narrative catalyst arrives in the form of Franklin's Uncle Jack (also Jones, who plays a number of smaller roles), a Hollywood writer who visits to convalesce from surgery. He's just the wizard Franklin needs and soon has the kid losing weight as well as adverbs from his growing number of short stories. But will Uncle Jack too be eaten alive by the family's blood-sucking ways?

Director Bart DeLorenzo deftly choreographs this accessible dramedy, played out on Keith Mitchell's kitschy period set, complete with chenille sofa and crock pot. Here are all the rituals of adolescence: parent-teacher conferences, humiliation in gym class, forced family outings, poorly timed erections, blowtorching your action figures with a can of hairspray and a lighter. Apparently Franklin has some repressed aggression.

Ryback is appealing as the intrepid misfit, speaking directly to the audience and easily winning our sympathies. As his mother, Buckley tears the head off her role and chews it like a T. rex. She's acute, funny, and a much-needed engine for the domestic scenes. (On banning sugary cereals in favor of oatmeal: "Oh yes. I am going Oliver Twist on this family!") Jones' performance sends Dr. Cerberus right over the top where he belongs, and you wish he had more stage time in his fangs.

The play zones in on the way middle-class families insist on making themselves unhappy, and you don't have to be familiar with the Stephen King oeuvre to relate to this Silver Spring house haunted by fear and resentment. The strongest moments are the quietest, as when Franklin's parents are calmly rationalizing their efforts to kill his ambition.Doctorc2

Yet there's always a feeling that the playwright and director are holding back, erring on the safe side of comedy and short-shrifting the horror. One of Aguirre-Sacasa's earlier efforts, "Mystery Plays," was a chilling twilight zone where self-aware young people found themselves in uncanny dilemmas. One story featured a girl whose brother killed their abusive parents, leaving her riddled with guilt. "Cerberus" is a gentler carnival of souls, the love story of a boy and his typewriter: writing as a way out.

The first step to becoming an artist is admiring other people's creations, and Aguirre-Sacasa knows the way we absorb pop culture at the cellular level. The play's intersection with cultural milestones is one of its sly charms, particularly the sequence on the 1983 ABC movie about nuclear holocaust, "The Day After." (Extra points if you recall the stars of that MOW before they're mentioned in the script.)

But we never fully experience Franklin's relationship with horror itself. Sure, he writes short stories in which mummies run amok and parents are carved up for dinner. What exactly is it about Cerberus that Franklin finds so liberating? What is it about his favorite horror movies that so compel him? The basic metaphor is clear, but the playwright makes us curious enough about his protagonist to want to delve deeper. We watch a televised Dr. Cerberus on an upstage screen (the projections and video design are by Christopher Ash), but he and Franklin never have a palpable connection.

Franklin's sexuality too, is a central battleground in the play; but while we witness the blossoming of his writing life, we aren't privy to his discovery of his homosexuality and all that it entails -- an odd omission in a coming-of-age story. Still, "Cerberus" takes you back to the moment all of us had to make a run for it, fleeing the ghost of an adolescent self, taking off into the unknown.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

“Doctor Cerberus,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends May 2. $28 to $65. Contact: (714) -708-5555 or Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Photo: Top, Jamison Jones as Doctor Cerberus, left, and Brett Ryback as Franklin Robertson in "Doctor Cerberus" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.  Lower, Jones as the coach, Ryback as Franklin and Jarrett Sleeper as Rodney, Franklin's brother. RobertsonCredit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times