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"Dog Sees God" Playwright Looks Outside His World

When Bert V. Royal moved to New York City from Green Cove Springs, Fla., he was just 21 with no college degree and little professional experience. Seven years later, Royal’s first play opens off-Broadway this December, and he has a six-figure advance to write an original screenplay for Paramount.

Email icon  leecwalker@gmail.com

When Bert V. Royal moved to New York City from Green Cove Springs, Fla., he was just 21 with no college degree and little professional experience. Seven years later, Royal’s first play is creating a lot of buzz as it prepares to open off-Broadway this December. As if that news weren’t pleasant enough, Royal has pocketed a six-figure advance to write an original screenplay for Paramount, thanks to his play’s quick triumph.

Royal moved to New York to dive into theater, originally breaking in through a casting office. When he quit casting after five years to become a writer, he had tried writing only a couple of scripts in the past without success. His last attempt, however, was wildly successful. The play, “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead,” is a clever, “unauthorized parody” in which the decades-old “Peanuts” characters star as angst-ridden teens. The play’s earliest incarnation won Best Overall Production at the New York 2004 International Fringe Festival, which drew the attention of prominent producer Dede Harris (producer of “The Pillowman”), who is now taking the show off-Broadway.

All the attention doesn’t seem to have gone to Royal’s head. He talks sincerely — and at times hilariously — about the ups and downs that have gotten him to this point.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been so excited about a cast onstage together in New York,” Royal says with a laugh. “It is the most exciting cast ever — and it just happens to be my play, so I’m excited.”

The off-Broadway cast for the “Dog Sees God” was announced earlier this month, creating considerable chatter. Among the many big names are Eddie Kaye Thomas, who played Paul Finch in the “American Pie” movies, and Eliza Dushku from the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV series.

The play begins with a funeral scene. A familiar and beloved beagle has contracted rabies and died, and so a distraught C.B. begins an inquiry about spirituality and the afterlife. The play is hilarious — featuring drunken cheerleaders, pyromania and mysophobia — but also is moving, taking serious turns and ending in tragedy. According to Harris, during Fringe 2004, word spread very quickly around the theater business that “Dog Sees God” was a good project to be involved in.

“I went to see it, and I was done, finished,” Harris says. “I thought it was brilliant — incredibly moving, emotional, funny, dark — in my eyes perfect.”

Harris says the production represents an $850,000 investment.

Royal doesn’t seem overwhelmed by his success — though he admits his life now has some tough demands. When you talk to him, you get the feeling you’re talking to the same thirsty young man who hunkered down in suburban Florida to comb the Internet for New York theater scene news. Royal’s attitude is straightforward and matter-of-fact. He sports a beard, baggy jeans, old T-shirts and a backward baseball cap, and he unapologetically smokes two packs of Parliaments a day. Laughing often, he speaks loudly and bluntly with just the slightest Florida drawl.

“I hate teenagers,” Royal says. “I can’t stand them. They scare me. I just think it’s this period of time where puberty makes you crazy. They’re such nasty human beings.”

That is why Royal decided to write about them, he says as he sits in the small and dark Gramercy Park pub that serves as his bunker a few afternoons and evenings every week. Royal wanted to work with a group of characters who were already well known and who would lend themselves to both comedy and tragedy.

“What was so appealing about these kids is that life was always so sad, even though there was nothing to be sad about,” Royal says, sipping on a concoction of orange juice, pineapple juice, soda and vodka. “I thought the idea of taking them and putting them in real trauma could be really interesting.”

Though neither Royal nor his play ever mentions Charles Schultz (or “Peanuts,” “Charlie Brown” or any other proper noun that refers to the original characters), Schultz’s death occurred only a few years before Royal began work on the play.

“What would you do in the absence of God or your creator?” Royal asks. “Ultimately, the play is about your creator and the life that you’ve led in your creator’s eyes. It becomes very much about looking outside your world.”

Royal himself has the tendency to look outside his world. As a teen in Florida, he first left high school, opting to be homeschooled by his mother, a retired music teacher. Royal never received a diploma (“Well, if I did, I’ve never seen it!”), testing out of the 12th grade and entering community college, where he majored in acting. Royal left college after two years (“I can’t act”) and first broached the idea of moving to New York only jokingly. But when his parents took him seriously, he applied for an internship at New York’s Public Theater and was accepted.

“He was irrepressible,” says Heidi Griffiths, the casting director at Public Theater for whom Royal served as an intern. “I recognized in him this absolute conviction that the theater is one’s home. You might not know which door, but you know you found the right house, and that’s rare in someone so young.”

Royal holds to the conviction that he was a good casting director, but the unpleasant experience he had in his last job turned out to be just the window he needed to start writing. Sorrel Tomlinson, an actor in New York who, by that time, was Royal’s friend and who is now associate producer of “Dog Sees God,” recalls that she and Royal met for coffee one day in 2003, and Royal told her he had an idea for a play.

“I told him that I really believe that if you just do it, it will happen,” Tomlinson says. “Just put the material out there. You can edit it later. I said, ‘If you set a date and tell people to come, then there will be a play. We don’t know what it will be, but there will be a play.’”

With Tomlinson as his cheerleader (“I owe everything to Sorrel,” he says), Royal wrote the play, and after a few readings he submitted it to the Fringe Festival. Eventually the script circulated as far as Los Angeles, where it impressed Paramount. The screenplay Royal is writing for the studio tells the true story of two suburban Florida parents whose unruly teenagers drive them to go “on strike” in a tent on their front lawn.

“Dog Sees God” opens off-Broadway Dec. 15 at the Century Center for Performing Arts, with preview performances starting Dec. 1. Also starring are America Ferrara (“Lords of Dogtown”), Ari Graynor (“Mystic River”), Logan Marshall Green (“The O.C.”) and Keith Nobbs (“Phone Booth”). Tripp Cullman, who directed “Swimming in the Shallows” off-Broadway this summer, directs.

Not bad. When asked how he felt about the play while he was writing it, Royal says: “It was really scary to me. I’m actually not that creative a writer.”

leecwalker@gmail.com Bert V. Royal.jpg Bert V. Royal Photo by Craig Samuel Johnson