The cast of “Dog Sees God” (from left): Zoe D’Andrea, Charlotte Weinman, Judy Durkin, Gabriel Nunag, Chandler David, James Sanger, Joey Maya Safchik and Corey Fogelmanis. Photo by Erin Flannery

Teens put new twist on adult-themed ‘Dog Sees God’


Last November, Joey Maya Safchik, 18, a senior at Charter High School of the Arts in Van Nuys, gathered some of her closest theater friends in the living room of her Tarzana home.

They sat on the floor, ate popcorn and read through one of Safchik’s favorite plays, “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead.” Bert Royal’s racy dramedy, which ran Off-Broadway in New York a decade ago, finds Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang in the halls of high school dealing with sex, drugs, suicide, bullying and LGBTQ issues.

Safchik knew the play was good but, after studying productions on YouTube, she also knew that much older actors typically played the teen roles. After the reading, she sensed that her young cast could pull it off onstage.

“We just thought, let’s do it as a play,” Safchick recalled recently at a Sherman Oaks cafe.

Seated beside her, 30-year-old Jonah Platt, a West Hollywood-based actor and older brother of Tony Award-winning Ben Platt, beamed like a proud parent.

“That’s the cutest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said, hearing Safchik recount the reading for the first time.

Soon after the living room session, Safchik and three close friends created Worst First Kiss Productions, a socially conscious theater company run by teens for teens. They acquired the rights to put on Royal’s play, raised $3,000 and staged a few performances over a February weekend at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood.

Half of the funds came from a Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles program called “The Teen Innovation Awards,” which supports teen ventures that educate and enrich the Jewish community. The program also connects participants with adult mentors like Platt.

After getting paired with Safchick as her mentor, Platt came to the final performance in February and said he saw potential.

“I got to see everything these kids were bringing to it, but I also got to see everything that wasn’t there yet,” Platt said. “I knew exactly what to do. That really meant digging deeper into the subtext, the character relationships and the individual arcs of the show.”

Platt, who previously played Fiyero in “Wicked” on Broadway, agreed to direct the teenagers, replacing the original director. The transition went smoothly, said Safchick, who plays the character based on Sally, Charlie Brown’s sister, in the production.

As rehearsals with Platt began, he instantly breathed new life into the work, said James Sanger, 19, an Oakwood School alum who plays Beethoven, based on the piano-playing “Peanuts” character Schroeder.

“The more we did this play and the more we worked with Jonah, we found more and more places that could get better,” Sanger said.

The young people’s production company staged six sold-out performances during a two-week run in June as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

“We had to turn people away, and I even had to boot my mom out of one,” Safchik said. “She’d already seen it several times, though.”

Coming off the success of that run, the group has scheduled additional shows at the Blank Theatre on July 15, 16, 22 and 23. Worst First Kiss Productions has been donating 15 percent of ticket proceeds to the Genders & Sexuality Alliance Network — formerly the Gay-Straight Alliance. So far, the company has raised $800.

A central storyline of the play is the Charlie Brown character’s questioning and exploration of his sexuality. Safchik believes that performing the play with a cast of teenagers, some of whom are gay or bisexual, can help bring into the open certain topics that are taboo for their age group.

“Part of our company’s initial mission was to choose works that are socially relevant and that we can easily connect to issues that teens face on an everyday basis — and that we see our friends struggle with, especially in school,” she said. “This play really focuses on LGBTQ tolerance and inclusion. I think putting this onstage will really help to remove the stigma of some of these issues. It helps to have young people like us playing the roles too.”

The play is normally performed by older actors in their mid- to late 20s. In fact, Royal, the playwright, has discouraged younger actors from attempting the raunchy, adult-themed material since it premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2004.

At Platt’s invitation, Royal attended one of the June performances and said he was impressed.

“Seeing your beautiful production of the play yesterday made me realize that — in the right hands — this play SHOULD be performed by younger actors,” he said in an email to Platt. “Granted, IF they are as insightful and nuanced and talented as your lot are.”

“I was crying in a restaurant when I read it,” said Safchik, who plans to study journalism at Northwestern University this fall. “I printed it out.”

“Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead” will be performed beginning July 15 at the Blank Theatre. For more information, visit  http://wfkdogseesgod.brownpapertickets.com.

 

The Peanut Gallery: An American Icon Examined


Forget apple pie — if there is an iconic American food, it is surely peanut butter.

The rich and satisfying story of peanut butter is told by Jon Krampner in “Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, The All-American Food” (Columbia University Press: $27.95), a serious work of scholarship that is enlivened by the author’s irrepressible love for all things peanut-related. As Krampner himself acknowledges, we have been treated to histories of codfish, oranges, and candy in recent years, “But remarkably, given its widespread popularity, there hasn’t  been a book about peanut butter on the burgeoning shelf of pop food histories. Now there is.”

Kampner’s deep dive into the history of the peanut is on glorious display in his irresistible book. Peanuts may be the all-American food, but they are not native to North America: “They originated in South America,” where they have been cultivated since 3000 B.C.E., “and arrived here obliquely.”  Roasted and salted peanuts are about 50 percent fat, although “[s]o long as one doesn’t overindulge in peanuts — which can be a challenge — that fat is mostly beneficial.” Goobers, the resonant nickname for peanuts, derives from a word in the Kimbundu language of Angola, “one of the few words in American English with an African derivation.”

But what Krampner finds most compelling is what we might call the social history of the peanut — the role it has played in American business, culture and identity. He reminds us that peanuts are rooted, quite literally, in the South, where they are still chiefly grown in a swath that runs from Virginia to Georgia. Peanuts were standard fare in Confederate war rations, and Union soldiers found them appetizing, too. “All those soldiers gobbling goobers,” explains Krampner, “led to the first major spike in U.S. peanut consumption.”  But peanut butter as we know it today was not invented until later in the nineteeth century, and it achieved mass appeal only after the turn of the twentieth, along with several other American favorites that were available to visitors at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, including the hamburger, the hot dog, and the ice cream cone.

Peanuts were first used in the South to slop the hogs, but peanut butter was a delicacy to be found at “dainty tea-rooms and high-class restaurants” during the Gilded Age. Recipes for the peanut butter sandwich began to appear in cookbooks in 1896: “Not just a sandwich, the PBJ meets the commonly accepted definition of a meal,” Krampner points out, “a form of protein, one or more fruits or vegetables, and a serving of starch.”  John Harvey Kellogg, then still running a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, served peanut butter to “patients who had difficulty chewing or digesting them properly.”  Kellogg, the inventor of the breakfast cereal, also filed the first patent for peanut butter, but it was George Bayle who first produced and sold packaged peanut butter as a snack food rather than a health food.

Krampner is self-evidently fascinated with the primal history and inner workings of the peanut butter industry. “So who’s the father of modern peanut butter?,” he asks, “master promoter John Harvey Kellogg or snack-food salesman George Bayle?” He debunks the popular belief that George Washington Carver was the inventor of peanut butter and points out that his pamphlet on “How to Grow the Peanut” serves to reveal that “Carver didn’t understand some peanut basics.” He argues that hydrogenation, first introduced in the 1920s, was “perhaps the most significant development in the industry’s history” simply because it vastly increased the shelf-life of packaged peanut butter and allowed it to become a mass-market item.

Exactly here is where “Creamy & Crunchy” reaches its cruising altitude. Peanut butter may be ubiquitous in American popular culture, but only because it has been marketed so aggressively by the corporations who make and sell it. Some of the brands are still famous — Peter Pan, Skippy and Jif, for example — and some are items of nostalgia, such as the Oz brand that entered the U.S. market in 1940s. Commerce on the corporate scale has attracted the attention of the FDA now and then on issues ranging from salmonella contamination to how much vegetable oil can be added to the product before it can no longer be called peanut butter.  “The health problem that would give the peanut and peanut butter industries the biggest headache, though, was fat,” writes Krampner. “Peanuts, being half oil, are half fat, and if you eat too many, you’ll get fat.” (For precisely the same reason, as Krampner points out, “for starving children in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere in the third World, it represents a second chance at life.)

The real charm of “Creamy & Crunchy” is the author’s own passion for peanut butter.  He concedes that hydrogenated peanut butter still outsells “what is variously called natural, old-fashioned or unstabilized peanut butter” by nine to one. “As for myself,” he pauses to tell us, “I eat unstabilized or natural peanut butter almost exclusively.” He even reveals his favorite brands, but he cannot confine himself to a single winner — he lists 14 brands in 13 categories ranging from “Best-Tasting Overall” to “Most Intense Fresh-Peanut Aroma” In two other categories, he lists no winners at all “as the author is a peanut butter purist.”

Note to the Reader: I am obliged — and proud — to point out that I am mentioned in the author’s acknowledgments for having provided legal advice in connection with “Creamy & Crunchy.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.