The Trouble with Doug, a new musical by Will Aronson (music and book) and Daniel Maté (lyrics and book), is billed as a "modern-day Metamorphosis," referring to the famous story by Kafka in which a man awakens one morning to discover that he's turned into a giant bug. Here, the title character turns into a human-sized slug, and the transformation doesn't just happen overnight. But don't come to this remarkable and heartfelt new show expecting either Kafkaesque alienation and angst or, as I was fearing, snarky postmodern spoof. The Trouble with Doug is an original, and also rather daring in post-Osage County theatre in its focus on a family of loving, smart people who genuinely care about each other. The places Aronson and Maté take us here are constantly surprising.
I don't want to give too much away, but I can certainly share the setup with you: Doug Gregory, a successful computer programmer in his late 20s, is about to move to Boston with his fiancee Vanessa. His parents, Jim and Lynn, use Doug's move as an impetus to make a change of their own—they decide to sell the Brooklyn family home and move to Long Island. Doug's older brother Vince, who is still living in his parents' basement, seems to be the only obstacle. (But that is not what the story is about.)
One day, while Doug and Vince are cleaning out their parents' attic, Doug begins to show signs of, well, becoming a slug. These become gradually more serious—mysterious ooze on his hands, severe cravings for lettuce—until, at his birthday party, just days before the proposed move to Boston, the metamorphosis accelerates and completes itself.
Concurrent with Doug's transformation comes one in the show itself. Act One is light and comic and sweet, but once Doug becomes a slug, the tone turns darker and the emotions get grittier and edgier and eventually move front and center. I'm not sure if Aronson and Maté intend this, but I took The Trouble with Doug to be less about a man who turns into a slug and more about a family dealing with the sudden catastrophic illness of a (dearly) loved one. Certainly the final ideas and images of the closing song, "Doug Things," support this notion. The unexpected shifts in the play mirror the storyline and often find the audience unprepared for what comes next, which in this case proves to be a pretty special accomplishment.
Maté's lyrics are witty and literate and Aronson's music is in a Sondheim/Finn minimalist style, played by a four-person orchestra comprising piano, percussion, and many reeds, giving the piece its dark shadings. (Greg Brown is the music director.) Lawrence Arancio has directed the piece with vigor; it's essentially a five-person chamber musical and yet it has multiple settings and requires one of its actors to convincingly turn into a large mollusk. Arancio avoids abstraction, which may or not be the best choice for this material. Kudos to costume designer Kara Harmon and set designer Gian Marco Lo Forte for realizing this complicated show on an indie theater budget.
The cast is exceptional. As the parents, Adam Heller and Mary-Pat Green rely on their musical-theatre chops to create fully-fleshed-out characters whom we like and sympathize with even when they are, as one lyric puts it, "Falling Apart." Carey McCray does a nice job as Vanessa, and Jason "Sweet Tooth" Williams brings intelligence and warmth to the slacker son Vince, avoiding the caricature that he could otherwise become. Anchoring the show in a terrific performance is Chuck Rea, who plays Doug with easy naturalism in Act One and the transforming slug with extraordinary depth and clarity in Act Two.
The Trouble with Doug deserves a future, though it requires special handling and perhaps a little more tweaking before it attempts a commercial run. And Rea, Maté, and Aronson—all of whom are recent graduates of NYU's Tisch School—are clearly talented young artists whose work I will be keeping an eye on.