New Tuners Theatre

at the Theatre Building

Sometimes I’ll catch myself going over Doonesbury four or five times. First I read the words. Then I go over the comic strip again, pausing at each frame to admire the draftsmanship. Finally, I go back and dwell on the bemused, droopy-lidded expressions that Garry Trudeau draws on the faces of his characters. Those expressions are the key to the artist’s attitude. When I’ve done all this, I go back and read the strip through again, allowing all the elements to interact. It’s like reading a poem–what emerges is not a mere gag; it’s an ironic point of view full of as much insight and opinion as a good editorial. That simple comic strip is actually enlightening for me, and shapes my thinking more than I care to admit.

Doonesbury, on the other hand, the musical that Trudeau wrote with Elizabeth Swados, is pathetically tame and straight-faced. There is no point of view to the show, no commentary, no insight. There are just some very conventional songs and a series of subplots that do nothing but put the personalities from the comic strip on parade. In fact, the musical transforms those wonderful tools of expression into mere cartoon characters, as though their foibles and idiosyncrasies are what the comic strip is all about. The whole project resembles a franchise arrangement, the kind that permits Bert and Ernie and Cookie Monster and Big Bird to be plastered all over lunch boxes and sweatshirts. Sure, kids will clamor for such items, which will make a lot of money for the copyright holders, and Doonesbury buffs might flock to this musical, but they’ll be as disappointed as children who expect their Cookie Monster doll to take them to Sesame Street.

Early in the 1980s, Trudeau stopped drawing his enormously popular Doonesbury comic strip for 20 months. He said he needed time to bring the characters up to date. They were still college students living at Walden Commune. Meanwhile, real college students had become career-minded droids intent on accumulating wealth and power. When the comic strip resumed, shortly before Doonesbury opened on Broadway in November 1983, the characters were out in the workaday world, trying to reconcile their ideals with reality.

In a way, the musical can stand in for the missing comic strips. All the characters are about to graduate and become bona fide adults. Mike Doonesbury is going to ask J.J. to marry him. Mark Slackmeyer is campaigning for a full-time job at the radio station where he hosts a talk show. Zonker Harris, a suntanning champion, is trying to think of a way he can stay in college and postpone growing up. B.D., the football star who wears his helmet all the time, has been traded from the Dallas Cowboys to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and his girlfriend Boopsie, who had her heart set on trying out for the Cowgirls, must resign herself to becoming a Tampette.

Zonker’s Uncle Duke, an inveterate schemer, wants to buy Walden Commune so he can build luxury condos on the site, and Joanie Caucus, who abandoned her family years before and lived at Walden while pursuing a law degree, returns for the graduation ceremony, only to run smack into J.J., her resentful daughter.

Each character comprises a separate subplot. Trudeau merely seems to be giving everyone a turn in the spotlight, with no story line or theme holding the action together. Consequently, the book is pointless and boring, and the songs don’t do much to enliven the proceedings.

Actually, the songs are to music what this show is to Trudeau’s comic strip–a pale, bland imitation that seems to be the real thing but isn’t. The music that Swados has written is standard issue–light, upbeat, with a little calypso thrown in to be cute. And Trudeau’s lyrics are perfectly suited to the sound–they’re banal, vapid, and boring. Here’s the chorus to “Graduation”: “Graduation will probably stand the test of time, and it’s almost at hand. Whether we sort the pros from the con, time will tell if life will go on.”

And in “Just One Night,” Mike, a virgin, tries to decide if he should sleep with J.J.: “Why try to solve each mystery in her eyes? Why try to fill a jar with fireflies in just one night? I have so many other nights ahead of me. It’s just one night, I need more time to learn how it’s supposed to be.”

Trudeau and Swados commit sins of omission in Doonesbury by failing to inject irony, wit, or surprise. But the cast of the New Tuners’ production commit sins of commission by mugging like little kids in front of a television camera. Director Byron Schaffer Jr. seems to think that all cartoon characters behave like Fred Flintstone, so he has the actors crank up their reactions until they’re oversize and irritating. There’s none of the mellow, flip commentary that is the trademark of the comic strip. Timothy Ortmann plays Zonker as Maynard G. Krebs, the high-strung, spaced-out beatnik on the TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Ortmann is so hyperactive onstage that he leaves no reaction time for himself–he just jumps to his next line. Jeff Talbott is supposed to be tentative and awkward as Mike, but he’s mostly loud and jittery. Matt McDonald is supposed to be laid-back as Mark, but he’s loud and jittery too. As B.D., Bob Pries affects an eccentric accent that makes him sound like either a brain-damaged athlete or a native of some remote region of New Jersey. Randal K. Boger, as TV reporter Roland Hedley, and Steve Childerston, as Duke, balloon their performances to grotesque proportions that distort the inherent absurdity of their characters. Only the women seem to have a handle on what they’re doing. Jennifer Nees (Boopsie), Kim Mallery (Duke’s Chinese assistant Honey), Colette Hawley (J.J.), and Rebecca McCauley (Joanie) are all cranked up a little too high, but at least they appear to be people, not refugees from Saturday morning TV.

Reading Doonesbury every morning is essential for me. It’s like a cup of coffee–I can’t be happy without it. Being deprived of that little ritual for 20 months was a hardship, and I’m certainly glad to have the comic strip back, but I still resent the interruption, especially after seeing what Trudeau produced while he was away from the drawing board.