Snakebit, the second play by actor-turned-writer David Marshall Grant, is a baby-boomer version of the kind-of-hip, sort-of-serious comedies that used to be a staple of dinner theaters. In these plays a problem is introduced--divorce, aging, chemical dependency, some long-past chance at love--but for the next two acts it's not allowed to interfere with the play's primary goal: keeping the audience entertained.
For example, in Andrew Bergman's Social Security the real issue of what to do with an elderly, perhaps senile parent is never taken so seriously that it mucks up the jokey dialogue. And in James Lapine's Table Settings the main character's panic about what to do with his life (and how to break free of his stereotypically dysfunctional upper-middle-class Jewish family) is only the thread on which Lapine strings two acts' worth of shtick.
My complaint with these plays is not that the authors try so hard to keep the audience laughing, it's that they, like so many contemporary playwrights, seem to believe it's not enough to just entertain. They feel compelled to add a spoonful of medicine to relieve any latent puritanical anxiety the audience might have about spending an evening at the theater.
In Snakebit the issue du jour is AIDS. Make no mistake, Grant has no interest in revealing anything new about the disease. He isn't interested in portraying, as Harry Kondoleon does in Zero Positive, the ways AIDS has distorted all contemporary social relations. He's not even interested in facing the mingled pain, sorrow, and hope that accompanies lingering terminal illnesses, as Scott McPherson does in Marvin's Room (which uses comedy not as a diversion but as a second channel for communicating the play's themes).
Having raised the issue of AIDS early in Snakebit--in a truly icky conversation about safe sex--Grant drops it until the second half of the play, where it provides a handy excuse for one of those explosive second-act confrontations in which characters suddenly and dramatically reveal all the thoughts and feelings they've been hiding.
Grant spends most of the play doing what he does best: creating a comic portrait of articulate, moderately self-aware, upper-middle-class characters talking their way into middle age. Grant played a gay character on Thirtysomething, so maybe it's not surprising that his characters seem to have stepped straight out of the show.
He presents us with three old friends: Jennifer, Michael, and Jonathan, whom the fates have thrown together for a weekend of momentous change. Michael is hovering on the edge of depression because his lover, Gary, has just left him. Jonathan, who has just had his first brush with fame in a movie called Brute Force II and is up for a big part in a much better class of movie, is competitive and verbally abusive. And Jonathan's wife, Jennifer, is the ultimate codependent, worrying about everybody but herself, including her daughter, who's sick with something that could be the flu but might be far worse.
Grant's character development is far subtler than this quick summary might suggest--even the instantly unlikeable Jonathan is allowed to show his tender side. Grant has also peppered his play with witty lines, all tightly bound to the plot. For example, when Michael cracks wise about the story lines of 19th-century ballets, Jennifer says, "Which one is about the rich guy and the peasant girl?" Michael replies, "All of them"--indirectly communicating why he gave up dancing in favor of social work.
It's not hard to see why Remains snapped this play up--it provides plenty of opportunities for actors to strut their stuff. As Jonathan, D.W. Moffett gets to snort and bellow and play the narcissist. As Jennifer, Talia Balsam gets to play a sympathetic friend and an outraged, assertive wife. Even Harry Hutchinson, in what is little more than a walk-on in the second act, gets to play both a flirtatious boy toy and a manipulative SOB.
Ironically, the play's main character, the jilted Michael, is the most constricted. Though he has every reason to be angry--at his ex, at his self-absorbed best friend, at his best friend's wife, the last woman he was romantically involved with--Michael remains a sugar-coated nice guy, the sort of gay character even a mildly homophobic network executive would find palatable.
Which leads me back to my main problem: why bring up the issue of AIDS at all if you're not prepared to deal with it as more than just a plot device?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.