By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
Walking out of the Caldwell Theatre's production of Snakebit, you can be certain you will not hear a playgoer over age 60 sigh, “Ahhh! To be young again!” This hard-hitting drama leaves no room to fantasize about the potency and possibility of the thirties. Playwright David Marshall Grant's increasingly complex psychological dialogue, often confrontational, spiked with bold and often politically incorrect humor, makes you think of a young Neil Simon, but while Grant's dialogue-laden emotional crises are Simonesque, the concerns of the characters are uniquely thirtysomething.
Jonathan (played by Tom Huston) induces his wife, Jenifer (Lanie MacEwan), to accompany him on a trip from New York to California, where he is auditioning for the lead role in Brute Force II, a typical Hollywood action flick. They stay with their best friend from high school, Michael (Michael Warga), a counselor, whose partner, Gary, has left him for a much younger, more casual lover. Jenifer has come on the trip as a feeble show of support for her husband in their failing marriage, but she has a hidden agenda. Her six-year-old daughter has been sick with a mysterious illness, and Jenifer has begun to worry that she, and consequently her child, may be HIV-positive. Unbeknownst to Jonathan, Michael was the last man Jenifer slept with before she married Jonathan . So without letting on to Jonathan, she convinces Michael, who has never been tested either, to slip off with her to a lab.
Snakebit is proof that the stage can still be the most gut-wrenching medium for suspense, offering its audience no means of escape from uncomfortable dramatic situations. When Jenifer tells Jonathan about her previous relationship with Michael, he demands that she call for the test results immediately. No moment could be more suspenseful than when Jenifer makes the call while Jonathan waits in the background, head in hands. Anyone who has had sexual intercourse even once over the past fifteen years -- straight, gay, male, female, promiscuous, faithful -- can paint himself or herself into this moment, and the compelling acting forces us to do so.
In the classic love triangle, the roles of villain and victim are clearly defined: Someone is betrayed, someone is deceived, and someone does the betraying and deceiving. The tragic element of fate is usually rooted in the fact that someone does not receive a vital piece of information on time. Snakebit peels back the surface of the classic love triangle to reveal a modern version that I'll call triangular love. In this case the tragedy is based on the fact that while there are secrets, in the end everyone is actually quite well informed, yet even this cannot save the characters from hurting one another. Blame is not a permissible weapon in triangular love; each participant is entirely responsible for his or her own actions and feelings. Therefore, the roles of good and bad become muddled, as we see in Snakebit. Whether you have been deceived or betrayed or are the deceiver or the betrayer depends on your perspective.
Tom Huston plays the character of Jonathan at full throttle. Jonathan is 100 percent testosterone -- a compulsive winner, a bully, a self-absorbed jerk. He doesn't just enter a room; he races in, immediately picking up the telephone to see if he has messages from his agent. He assures Jenifer and Michael, “Yeah, yeah, I'm listening,” while his ear is glued to the phone, and then he loses his temper when they lose their patience and stop talking to him. Tom Huston seduces us into loving the character we don't want to love by first offending us and then winning us over, as when he consoles Michael, who complains of Gary's insensitivity and philandering: “If you wanted decency, kindness, that kind of stuff, you should have been with a woman.”
The predominant characteristic of a thirtysomething jerk is that he knows he's a jerk. Raised to talk about feelings and “issues,” an American male in his thirties doesn't have the luxury of being a man still discovering his sensitive side. He wields words like boundaries, support, and martyr just as comfortably as he lands a business deal. Jonathan embodies these characteristics. When he throws up his arms in frustration and says, “I know. I'm an asshole,” you know he really means it. Likewise when he finally puts down the telephone to pay attention to his wife and his best friend, you realize he can be as loving as he can be self-absorbed. When he spontaneously jumps onto the couch with Michael, envelops him in a bear hug, and exclaims, “You were the reason I started to act. You were my inspiration!” it seems to compensate for his inconsiderate side because it is equally sincere.
Huston plays his part with energy and zeal, counterbalancing Michael's passivity. Although his words are cruel, Jonathan's uncensored confrontations cause dramatic shifts in the characters of Jenifer and Michael. He is disturbingly unmoved by the emotions of others. In one confrontation he accuses Michael of being a martyr and yells, “You don't have to be a victim to prove the world sucks.” What happens on the stage among Tom Huston, Michael Warga, and Lanie MacEwan would be more aptly called alchemy than chemistry. The fire and drive in Jonathan's personality transform Michael and Jenifer, both of whom have been rendered somewhat powerless and defeated by life's circumstances. But Jenifer and Michael are far from being blanks. Each reveals a secret life, dramatizing what Jenifer says to her husband when she tells him about her relationship with Michael: “You don't know me. You have no idea.”