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Theater Review

Deceit and Venom Strike at Surface of 'Snakebit' Friends

May 31, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

"Snakebit," at the Coast Playhouse, could use more bite. Or maybe a snake.

True, three of the four characters are beset by problems and anxieties. They might indeed think of themselves as snakebit. But no snakelike person shows up as the source of their woes--and the venom from at least some of their troubles isn't as severe as it initially appeared.

The fourth character, an up-and-coming actor who's on the verge of a big movie role, looks like a snake at first glance. He seldom thinks of anything except his own career. But he is the least deceitful character in the play. And he has so much more energy than the others that he's the one who ends up giving a little closing pep talk that snaps them out of their funk.

Playwright David Marshall Grant pulls off one difficult challenge: turning the least sympathetic character into the strongest and the most interesting one by the end of the play. But at the same time, the characters who should most naturally win our sympathy come off as weak and querulous, which probably isn't what Grant had in mind.

The central trio here consists of the brash actor Jonathan (Christopher Gartin); his jittery wife, Jenifer (Andrea Bendewald); and their mutual friend Michael (Bill Brochtrup), who's hosting the couple in his L.A. home during the final stages of Jonathan's quest for a role in an action flick.

While Jonathan is making the Hollywood rounds, Jenifer's chief concern is their ailing 6-year-old daughter back home in New York. Jenifer's own acting career has collapsed, and her new work--baking and marketing brownies--hasn't made her happy.

Michael, who has known Jonathan since they were kids, is in the middle of his own crises. He recently broke up with his closeted boyfriend Gary and can't afford to pay all the rent, so he has begun packing. Furthermore, his job as a social worker is in jeopardy, because he felt so sorry for one of his young, abused charges that he let her stay in his home and even wanted to adopt her--which not only cost him his relationship with Gary but also violated the rules of his profession.

We hear brief snippets of Gary, who's a radio deejay, and Michael's young client Mariama, who leaves a message on the answering machine, but we don't see them. Nor do we see or hear the child who preoccupies Jenifer. The absence of these people makes it too easy to dismiss Michael and Jenifer as mere whiners.

The only other onstage character is a young man (Michael Weston) who shows up looking to rent but, in fact, has an ulterior motive. Without giving away what it is, let's just say that his appearances on the scene and Michael's reaction to them aren't credible. It's this young man, by the way, who uses the word "snakebit"--but he's using it to describe Elizabeth Taylor, not any of the three main characters.

In addition to all of the above, a new crisis crops up during the play. We learn that three months before Jonathan and Jenifer were married in 1989, she slept with Michael. This news sparks a panic about what diseases Michael may have passed on to whom. But considering that the event took place 11 years ago, the delayed reaction feels contrived. For that matter, the event itself sounds dubious--we never get an explanation of what drove the two of them into bed together.

The relationship between Jonathan and Michael is sketched in considerable detail, and some of Grant's sharpest and funniest writing is in Jonathan's attempts to explain why he wishes that he, too, were gay. But the fact is that he is so opposite Michael, in just about every conceivable way, that their storied childhood friendship is never quite convincing. An attempt to explain their bond by an incident that took place on Earth Day when they were 13 is especially limp.

Gartin and Brochtrup were replacements in the New York production, and while they deliver highly polished performances--with Gartin often serving as the play's main sparkplug--one wonders if different casting could somehow make the characters' relationship more believable. (The original Michael in New York, Geoffrey Nauffts, was just seen at South Coast Repertory in "The Beginning of August," playing another, more intriguing bisexual character.)

While Bendewald tries to provide a few variations on Jenifer's distress, it's difficult to make this woman come off as much more than a victim. Weston's performance is more mannered than the others, which is entertaining on the surface but which also reinforces the artifice within the play's most artificial character.

Jace Alexander directed on a beautifully detailed set, which was designed by Dean Taucher and executed and lit by Douglas D. Smith.

*

* "Snakebit," Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends July 2. $25. (310) 289-2999. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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