The reservoirs of pain run fierce and deep in “Snakebit,” actor David Marshall Grant’s wise and wounding debut play, so it’s a particular tribute to director Jace Alexander and a uniformly terrific cast that the evening represents the near-total pleasure that it does. The play has been extended already in its Off Off Broadway debut under the auspices of Naked Angels, and Grant’s offstage skills are unlikely to remain one of New York’s best-kept secrets for long. Writing and production merge here into an alternately tender and edgy whole, and one wishes for a broad public to savor Grant’s compassionate yet utterly unsentimental authorial bite.
In his other, no less accomplished life on stage, the writer probably remains best-known for his memorably conflicted Joe Pitt — the straight-arrow gay Mormon — in Broadway’s “Angels in America,” and he brings some of that work’s defining emotional sweep to a four-character play far more modest in its aims.
Though the play’s setting on the fringes of the film industry might seem as familiar (in dramatic terms, at least) as its approach to HIV, Grant displays so canny an ear — and so cunning a sense of emotional interplay — that he sustains interest not only in the central trio-turned-quartet but in numerous characters (not to mention a none-too-neighborly dog) who are kept offstage. Gay and straight, children and parents, a hospitalized 11-year-old whom we never glimpse as well as the girl’s erstwhile social worker, Michael (Geoffrey Nauffts), whose anxiety gently drives the play: Grant folds all comers into that genuine play for today whose humor co-exists with a pathos that — as with all the best writing — seems to rise up startlingly from within.
As “Snakebit” opens, Connecticut native Michael is on the verge of giving up his L.A. pad, and has a week to depart the airy, bleached-wood abode beautifully realized in Dean Taucher’s design. Changes are afoot on other fronts, as well. Michael’s close friend Jonathan (David Alan Basche), an actor, is visiting from New York, and may finally be cracking the L.A. movie scene from which he has felt shut out. What that means for Jonathan’s wife, Jenifer (Jodie Markell) — herself a onetime actress (she recounts a notable failure as the flower-seller in “A Streetcar Named Desire”) — is anyone’s guess, especially since the couple have a young daughter back East whose susceptibility to illness is causing her mother no small distress.
Add in to the house a young arrival (played by able newcomer Michael Weston) who may be a less innocent visitor than he appears, and Grant establishes shifting cross-currents of fear mingled with affection no less acutely than the present is with the past. Indeed, in “Snakebit,” each person’s history returns in differing ways to haunt his daily life, whether in the form of a recurring stutter or as what someone else refers to — with Ibsen-esque foreboding — as “secrets at the table.”
And yet, for all its slowly emerging revelations, a bygone liaison between Jenifer and Michael — now gay and on the rebound from a relationship gone sour –included, “Snakebit” is far from melodramatic. (Those wanting the plot pyrotechnics of, say, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” should look elsewhere.) Instead, as staged with unerring empathy by Alexander, the play is rich with the sorts of details that swiftly delineate character while making us feel as if we’ve followed the this assemblage and their various idiosyncrasies for their entire lives.
Jonathan, for instance, can’t listen to his phone messages often enough in a consuming quest to jumpstart his career. But it’s typical of Grant’s generosity as a writer that the same character is never completely blind to the emotional demands of friend or daughter — even if each, in separate ways, goes on to rebuff him. (“She just got bored” is Jonathan’s poignant explanation when he gets to the telephone only to discover that Emma, his ailing 6-year-old, has hung up.)
A wired Hollywood wannabe, Jonathan is the play’s showiest part, and it should accelerate the career of the gifted Basche, who is never better than when Jonathan allows Nauffts’ contrastingly interior Michael to be the Michael York figure in the “Cabaret” parody that their lives may have become. Yet Basche’s bravura in no way eclipses either Nauffts’ telling sense of reserve or the dreamy-voiced Markell, playing a onetime Miranda (from “The Tempest”) who must live with a storm-tossed neuroticism all her own. The characters’ doubts make for some rough sailing, especially as regards intimacies gone awry, but they leave one in no doubt about the abilities of a writer who would seem to have little left to prove.