When Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis begins, Gregor Samsa is already a giant insect. In The Trouble With Doug, Will Aronson and Daniel Mate's loosely inspired musical take on the surreal novella, the title character's transformation into a gastropod mollusk is incremental, awkward, painful, and hilarious, and it takes him the entire first act to complete it.
This is a crucial distinction. In Kafka's source material, we never experience Gregor as a Homo sapien, so we take in the narrative with a good deal of distance. Rotten luck for him; that's life, I guess. But in its minimalist interpretation at Arts Garage, Aronson and Mate's masterful science-fiction parable becomes so moving in part because we've come to identify with Doug's humanity — witnessing, as one of the songs puts it, "Doug lose his Dougness every day."
Played by Clay Cartland, Doug is a squarish 27-year-old Brooklynite who has just received a job in software development for a Silicon Valley tech company. He'll be moving to San Francisco in three weeks with his loving fiancée (Alix Paige). His parents, Lynn and Jim (Patti Gardner and Barry Tarallo, consummate professionals as always), approach Doug's move with an ambivalent mix of anticipation and panic; they rely on his industriousness and his talent with gadgets, and they get less than a minimum of help from their other boy, Vince (Shane Tanner), a 31-year-old adolescent living in a sad basement bohemia in his parents' house.
As the moving day grows closer, strange symptoms metastasize across Doug's mind and body like a creeping virus in a horror movie. Strange goo spurts from his hand. He has an insatiable appetite for lettuce. Green nubs begin to sprout on his forehead. He has sudden bouts of talking in tongues. As the first act winds to an outrageous finish, he has become a slug, a special effect achieved by nothing more than a hooded forest-green windbreaker, some rubber antennae attached to the top, and the actor's movements. In the second act, the rest of Doug's family attempts to understand and live with his new condition, with varying results of denial, delusion, and empathy.
If there's a weak point in this production, it's the vanilla opening number establishing Doug's normalcy. Cartland has an inborn gift for rubbery comedy, and he'll have plenty of opportunities to express it later on; in the beginning, though, he seems a tad uncomfortable with Paige, lacking the chemistry that Gardner and Tarallo enjoy. But once the transfiguration begins, Cartland's expressionistic gifts take hold. He seems genuinely possessed by something otherworldly, and his transformation is the comic zenith of The Trouble With Doug.
But, with the gradual pacing of a sunset, the lightness of the first act subtly undergoes its own transformation into something a lot darker, with the quirk of the first act replaced by a paradigm shift that doesn't go away. In fact, it gets worse. When Doug first becomes a slug, he can still walk and talk — albeit in trailing, Kermit the Frog-style tones. But as the second act continues, he becomes restrained to the basement floor, reduced to babbling gibberish and the occasional yogic gyration, arching his body up and down like an undulating parabola. Cartland sheds his actorly intelligence so well that we absolutely buy him as a slug — a creature acting out of instinct, not calculation. Credit Cartland, and certainly director Margaret Ledford, for managing this difficult transition so subtly and effectively.
But what we finally take away from this production of The Trouble With Doug is that the story isn't about Doug, not chiefly anyway. It's about Vince, his slacker kin, played by Tanner in his best performance yet. Of Doug's inner circle, it's he who takes the leadership role in creating a livable home environment for a man-sized slug — "he's still trying to get used to his 10,000 teeth!" — and he's the only one who truly grasps the finality of Doug's devolution. To the extent that he finally takes some initiative in life, we come to realize that the story's main metamorphosis is Vince's, not Doug's. By the time Tanner gets around to his moving showstopper, "I'm Not Crying," and the poignant events that follow, we realize The Trouble With Doug is ultimately neither comedy nor tragedy but a touching drama about sacrifice, coping, and, as corny as it sounds, the possibility of a better tomorrow.