“Snakebit,” receiving its West Coast premiere at the Coast Playhouse, is an actor’s first playwriting effort, so it’s almost predictable that the work’s strengths involve character rather than plot. David Marshall Grant, best known for his role in “Angels in America,” has crafted a deeply felt, intermittently humorous and slightly awkward play about people who are entering a stage of life where they feel all their most important decisions are behind them. This uneven production, which boasts an especially strong performance from Christopher Gartin, walks a very thin line between being appropriately melancholic and inappropriately whiny.
Bill Brochtrup plays Michael, a gay Los Angeles social worker whose long-term relationship has just ended. He’s so miserable that he can’t even get up the energy to pack up his apartment, which he has to do because he can’t afford to keep it. So it’s not the best time for Michael to be playing host to visiting friends, married couple Jonathan (Gartin) and Jenifer (Andrea Bendewald), who can barely talk to each other without fighting.
Jonathan, Michael’s best friend since childhood, has come to L.A. for a big audition, hoping to advance his acting career past an appearance in the cheesy “Brute Force II.” When he’s not checking in with his agent and being otherwise self-involved, Jonathan finds time to criticize his wife, who is a bundle of nerves, constantly worrying about the health of their frail daughter back in New York.
As the tensions between Jonathan and Jenifer fester, Michael finds himself caught in the whirlwind of recriminations and unpleasant secrets revealed.
Each of the thirtysomething characters must confront the fact that their dreams — even their most humble ones — don’t seem to be happening, either because they’re unluckily “snakebit,” or because, as Jonathan doesn’t hesitate to tell Jenifer and Michael, they sabotage themselves by being too nice.
It’s a truism of drama that often the least likable character is the one who’s most entertaining to watch onstage, and that’s the case here. Jonathan’s outrageous narcissism is a lot more fun than Michael’s self-pity. This is compounded by the fact that Gartin commands the stage in a way that Brochtrup and Bendewald simply don’t. In a finely varied and highly charismatic performance, Gartin manages to provide various shadings to Jonathan’s oversized egotism.
Brochtrup (“NYPD Blue”) is thoroughly sympathetic as the emotional Michael, but he presents the character as too much of a cipher. And Bendewald (“Suddenly Susan”), in what is probably the most difficult of the parts, hammers home Jenifer’s raw anxieties too heavily from the start, leaving little room for the later revelations to have any real effect. Both actors suffer from a touch of TV syndrome, acting almost solely with facial expressions and as if they hope an editor will give shape to their performances.
In a supporting role, Michael Weston expertly delivers a silly monologue about Elizabeth Taylor, and succeeds at being both funny and affecting. He takes what is primarily a functional character and makes the scenes the most charming of the play.
Narratively, the play proceeds in fits and starts, with the various secrets the characters reveal being spaced out for effect more than for believability. The underlying narrative feels fundamentally contrived, something director Jace Alexander tries to make up for with his easygoing direction. Sometimes, he succeeds. “Snakebit” has plenty of elements that make it worthwhile but ultimately remains a mixed bag.