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Plotting Out His New Second Act

Actor David Marshall Grant finds success as a writer with the comedy-drama 'Snakebit.'

May 28, 2000|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | F. Kathleen Foley is a regular theater reviewer for daily Calendar

The poster boy for midlife career segues could well be David Marshall Grant.

For a couple of decades, Grant quietly plied his trade as an actor, most notably in "Bent" on Broadway opposite Richard Gere and as the closeted Mormon lawyer in "Angels in America," for which he received a Tony nomination. Film audiences might recognize him from roles in "Air America" and other mainstream movies.

Then, last year, Grant's life underwent some radical changes. He didn't exactly change horses in midstream; let's just say he coaxed his mount into a different channel.

Grant's first produced play, "Snakebit," which opens tonight at the Coast Playhouse, was a succes d'estime of last year's New York season. Set in Los Angeles, "Snakebit" concerns an atypical triangle: Michael, a gay social worker; Jonathan, an egocentric actor; and Jonathan's wife, Jenifer, a former actress and the mother of a chronically ill child.

The beleaguered Michael has recently undergone a series of reverses, including a painful breakup with his lover. The abrasive Jonathan, an unwitting self-parody of show-biz excess, is on the cusp of a big movie contract. And the emotionally fragile Jenifer--who once had an affair with Michael--may be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, a seemingly unassuming Valley boy sparks Michael's interest--and further complicates the equation of relationships.

Grant's sleeper comedy-drama, which has been described by enthusiastic reviewers as "uncompromisingly rueful" and "immensely skilled and likable," started out at the Grove Street Playhouse, a small venue in New York's West Village.

Speaking from his home in Bridgehampton, N.Y., Grant recalls that inaugural outing--a modest affair, to say the least.

"The Grove Playhouse is really a small children's theater in the West Village. We shared the stage with 'Pinocchio,' " Grant says with a laugh. "We had to strike our furniture so that 'Pinocchio' could have the Saturday afternoon slot."

The production soon outgrew its limited space and moved to a long run at the larger Century Theatre, receiving best play nominations from both the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.

"Snakebit" was ultimately outstripped in the awards running by the juggernaut of "Wit." But Grant had become established as a playwright to be reckoned with.

Acting is necessarily interpretive, and writing is specifically creative. Symbiotic but separate disciplines requiring different talents and abilities, they rarely intersect in the same practitioner. In Grant's case, however, the twain met.

"I write very much the way I act," Grant says. "The only way I know how to write is to follow the intentions of the character. That was a big word in my acting training. 'Intention.' When I write, I just follow the needs of the characters, and they tend to lead me to story and plot. In other words, if you're rigorous and truthful about what your characters want, it leads you toward deeper events."

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As is typical with many "overnight" successes, Grant's writing career was a long time in the making. Grant had dabbled with writing for years, completing a first draft of "Snakebit" around '92. A planned production at Circle Repertory derailed when that institution went bankrupt.

At that point, "Snakebit" went onto the back burner while Grant continued to make the rounds as an actor. Then, a friend who was familiar with the play organized a reading at Naked Angels, a New York-based theater company. At that point, Naked Angels co-founder Jace Alexander, who also helms the production at the Coast, signed on to direct.

Bill Brochtrup, perhaps best known for his role as the openly gay office assistant in "NYPD Blue," played Michael last summer in New York. Brochtrup reprises his role in the Coast production, which also includes Christopher Gartin and Michael Weston, both from the New York run, and newcomer Andrea Bendewald.

For Brochtrup, the role is both a challenge and a welcome relief from the demands of episodic television. "Doing 'NYPD Blue' is a little like being underwater," says Brochtrup. "You don't emerge again until the series stops shooting in May. That's why it's so fantastic to spend another summer doing this. I had the most fun of my life in New York last summer doing this play."

Brochtrup subscribes to Grant's belief that, whatever the creative discipline, truthfulness is paramount. "This play is about betrayal and secrets," he says. "I've read a lot of scripts, and this is the truest thing I have read by a country mile.

"When things are well-written and true, they're easier to act. The logic of the character is clear, the scenes follow from one to another. The author has cleared you a path in the woods and very nicely marks everything out. And Jace Alexander is a wonderful director. Like David, he's very specific and clear about the logic of the play. Everything's woven into a very rich tapestry."

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