In “A Snake in the Vein,” playwright Alan Bowne creates an almost unimaginably bleak situation — and then infuses it with laugh-out-loud humor. It’s astartling, stimulating combination, and the excellent Blank Theatre Company production maintains the balance brilliantly. This short but intense work confirms that Bowne’s death of AIDS complications two years ago was a major loss to the theater.
The writer, whose best-known work, “Beirut,” was made into an HBO movie called “Daybreak,” wrote with clarity, precision and, above all, economy.
“A Snake in the Vein” runs under an hour, yet it never feels sketchy or unfinished.
The setting is a private room in a New York rehabilitation clinic. The mutually suspicious roommates are a gay ex-teacher (Lee Kissman) and a rock guitarist (Christopher Gartin).
J.J., the guitarist, is in denial about his drug habit; he swears he only entered the rehab center to avoid prison. His roommate is older and more self-aware. He comes in every now and then to dry out — right around the time when his tolerance level is increasing and he is no longer feeling much of a rush. A few weeks here, and taking drugs will again be blissful.
The slim but captivating story concerns his attempt to convince J.J. to shoot some heroin into his jugular vein (the one vein in his body he has not destroyed).
J.J., who sees the challenge as a test of his manhood, agrees. If he’s successful, this young addict will prove his self-worth by hitting the smallest vein in his body. The older addict will satisfy his wish to die.
This situation would be almost unbearably bleak except for the humor Bowne finds in (rather than imposes on) the situation. J.J.’s frustrated laments (“This could only happen in New York City!”), plus his roommate’s many sarcastic asides (most of which he delivers via a furry green hand puppet) give the piece a surprisingly light texture.
Under the razor-sharp direction of Lysa Hayland, the two actors are outstanding; each creates a fully realized, totally believable character.
They are helped by the creative and effective work of designer Randal P. Earnest (whose set is both realistic and abstract) and composer Lucia Hwong.
Bowne’s view of life was, at least in this play, decidedly nihilistic; the small victory that occurs at the climax is as hollow as they come.
Yet one leaves the theater stimulated rather than depressed. There may be no hope in Bowne’s world, but there is wit and artistry.