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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
A young actor makes all the right moves: Yale Drama School followed by a host of plum roles on prominent stages all the way to Broadway, where he even captures Drama Desk and Tony nominations. He heads for Hollywood, where he gets trapped in the local quicksand for a dozen years. Approaching forty, he decides to write a play. After several more years of cobbling and begging, he gets it produced in a tiny space in the West Village. Good notices result in a commercial transfer to a nice off-Broadway house where all of his professional development has redeemed itself in a smart, funny, keenly written play.
This is the story of Snakebit -- not the one now being performed by a very good cast onstage at the Century Theatre, but the one behind the scenes. Snakebit is a finely crafted, thoughtful play that is not autobiography, but nonetheless reflects an integrity that is borne of Grant's life experiences.
Michael (Geoffrey Nauffts) is a thirty-something gay ex-dancer social worker in Los Angeles. He has house guests: his best friend from childhood, Jonathan (David Alan Basche), now an actor living in New York, and Jonathan's variously suffering wife, Jenifer (Jodie Markell). Jenifer and Michael have become good friends. Unbeknownst to Jonathan, before they were married, Jenifer slept with Michael -- his last woman.
The New Yorkers have come west for Jonathan's big break -- an audition for a major role in a movie. It's a reunion that finds none of them particularly joyful. Michael is moving out of a nice two-bedroom rental he can't afford in Los Angeles. He wants to adopt a child who happens to be a battered 11 year old patient of his -- although he has been forced off her case and seeing her has been forbidden. His lover, Gary, has left him for a younger man. Jonathan seems to have replaced communicating with barking. The ill effects of "too much testosterone" have rendered him obnoxious, and the notion of friendship seems to be escaping him. Jenifer, once an actress herself, seems to be losing the meaning of her own role in life. She has become a mother who worries about her sickly daughter, feeling guilty about the cause of her daughter's maladies, for which she may be to blame.
At first glance, Snakebit appears to be another situation comedy that's too edgy in content for television but otherwise not much different. Dean Taucher's realistic set is fine, if cut from the standard "living room with doors to everything" mold, this time transported to Los Angeles by placing it at ground level and with vegetation rather than another building outside the window. Jace Alexander, a product of television as well as the stage, has directed it with seamless efficiency but not an enormous amount of imagination.
It comes as something of a surprise, then, that Snakebit leaps out of its confining genre and intrigues. Two dimensional characters develop texture; a pleasant, straightforward story takes unanticipated turns. Grant's writing is exceptionally aware, comic and poignant in equal doses. In spite of a plethora of opportunities to do so, it becomes neither harsh nor didactic nor sentimental.
The acting, subject to the same temptations, also remains tautly on course and carefully modulated. It is hard to imagine four more astutely rendered performances. Nauffts is splendid in maintaining Michael's innate enthusiasm even as he confronts fear, vulnerability and seeming defeat. Markell is sublime as Jenifer. Her comic timing is perfect, but never overpowers the anxiety she experiences. She possesses a fascinating voice that blends a combination of incredulity, sarcasm and honesty. And Basche, whose performance could easily rely on one note, makes the play's most emotionally true chords resonate. Twice, he reveals the humanity behind his bluster with breathtaking unrestrained passion. Michael Weston makes an equally fine impression as a young "valley boy." He, too, accommodates the character subtly.
If this represents the quality of work we can expect from these young actors, we have a lot to look forward to. If, as we can only hope, David Marshall Grant is not a one-hit wonder as a playwright, he affords us much to anticipate eagerly as well.