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In Crisis 

Two local theater productions each spotlight a character dealing with loss

It's been a long time since "gay" meant "happy." Certainly the homosexual characters in two plays that opened last week have more than their share of trouble; even though the plays they inhabit start out as comedies, the trouble quickly takes over at Live Theatre Workshop in its late-night production of Dog Sees God, and at Alternative Theatre Company's mounting of Dirty Secrets.

In Bert V. Royal's Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead at LTW, the Peanuts gang has gotten 10 years older and gone to high school. If you think Charlie Brown was depressed when he was in elementary school, you should see him now.

To skirt copyright law, Royal has billed his play as a parody and changed the characters' names a bit, but you know who they really are: Charlie Brown is now called CB; his sister, Sally, is now referred to merely as "CB's sister," and she has gone goth; Linus Van Pelt, now called Van, is a stoner who smoked the ashes of his security blanket when it was burned by his sister (formerly known as Lucy), who is a promiscuous pyromaniac who's been institutionalized and doped with lithium. Tricia, the former Peppermint Patty, and her sidekick, Marcy, are mean girls who make catty remarks about everyone while sneaking booze into the high school cafeteria. The piano-playing Schroeder is now called Beethoven, but he's going through some changes: He's developed an interest in Chopin, and he may be gay. This disgusts Matt, the former Pig Pen, who has internalized his filth; on the outside, he's a compulsive clean freak, but on the inside, he's a vicious homophobe.

This is not a pleasant crowd. Instead of calling CB a blockhead, they now yell, "You faggoty asshole." Good grief! At least when they go to a party, they still dance to Vince Guaraldi.

As in the past, CB is undergoing an existential crisis, but now it's more sophisticated. His dog has been euthanized after contracting rabies and killing the little yellow bird he used to hang out with. Do dogs go to heaven, CB wonders? And what sort of god might preside over it, and us? CB doubts his free will. "Do you ever feel like you're not a real person?" he asks. "That you're the product of someone's imagination, and you can't think for yourself because you're really just like some creation, and that somewhere, there's people laughing every time you fall?"

Well, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz is dead, so no wonder these characters feel set adrift by their god. Now that their fates have been commandeered by Royal, some of them seem manipulated merely for shock value, but despite the comic incongruities and the very funny Valley Girl dialogue between Tricia and Marcy, Dog Sees God turns out to be a rather serious play.

LTW late-show regular Christopher Johnson plays CB as a real person, not a parody of a comic-strip character. He's confused for good reason. He's basically a decent guy, but he has developed a mean streak, manifested mainly in his willingness to stand by while his friends do nasty things to each other. Nobody comes to his dog's funeral, yet he is an oddly popular character whose friends won't acknowledge his popularity. Best of all, Johnson manages to convey the original Charlie Brown's key characteristic: his determination to try, try again, no matter how often that tree eats his kite.

Director Danielle Dryer presides over a uniformly effective cast of college-age actors who deserve a lot more exposure: Amanda Gremel, Paul Matlock, Alex Garday, Andy Diaz, Hannah Taylor, Michele Loera and, even though she has only one scene, Torrey Mansur as the character formerly known as Lucy. If Mansur doesn't fully convey the anger lurking within the character, she does neatly entwine the toughness and tenderness of a troubled but maturing person who is no longer pulling away Charlie Brown's football just before the kick.

Something, if not a football, has been pulled out from under the three characters in Dirty Secrets. Tom (played by playwright Joe Marshall, who also directs this Alternative Theatre Company production) has broken up with his unfaithful boyfriend. Desolate, he comes to stay with his sympathetic friend Nick (Steve Wood) and Nick's hostile lover, Shane (Nick Cianciotto). Tom is all mopey and brokenhearted around Nick, but when he's alone with Shane, he turns malevolent.

Tom knows that his lover fell into bed with Shane, and Tom is out to extract some sort of revenge. Initially, he seems to want to turn Shane into some sort of secret sex slave, but the situation becomes more complicated as Tom and Nick begin to fall in love--or do they? The intriguing aspect of this play is that we're never sure whether Tom is being sincere or manipulative.

Dirty Secrets begins breezily, as a gentle gay relationship comedy. Shane sashays around the living room to his favorite Olivia Newton-John CD, and Nick complains, lovingly, "You are so gay!" Nick, in contrast, has a gender-neutral manner, whereas Tom has a more masculine comportment, except when he succumbs to lovelorn weepiness.

The three men are not reduced to types, though, and the play grows increasingly dark and snarling as it progresses.

This is not one of those stories you could imagine being enacted by straight characters. The sexual leverage among the three just wouldn't work if they weren't all gay. Yet the core emotions are universal: Everyone wants to be loved and hates rejection. And women can certainly identify with Tom's concern that as he enters middle age, he is becoming sexually invisible to others.

The three actors--wispy Cianciotto, forthright Wood and brooding Marshall--bring their characters to life with skill and compassion. If there's a complaint, it's that Marshall tends to flip a switch between sadness and anger; if he weren't directing himself, he'd probably develop a better feel for the emotional transitions, quick as they need to be. And as a playwright, Marshall hints at two or three endings before settling on one that comes as a surprise. Upon reflection, it's emotionally true, but Marshall could have done just a little more to set it up earlier in the play.

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