- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2000

Parts of "Snakebit" have not aged as well as others, but the richly, ripely drawn characters give the play its essential bite.
David Marshall Grant has crafted a beguiling four-character work about old friends who are like family and what happens when the foundations of this relationship are shaky and threaten to falter.
The friends include Michael (Paul Morella), a former ballet dancer who now lives very much in his head as a conscientious social worker. He sits bereft among boxes and packing supplies, since his lover Gary has left him and now he has to move from his spacious Los Angeles digs.
Michael has two house guests, his best friend since childhood, Jonathan (Marty Lodge), an actor, and his wife, Jenifer (Jane Beard), who, as it turns out, was a long-ago lover of Michael's. The two are there to offer moral support. Jonathan also is anxiously awaiting news on whether he is cast in a vapid and lucrative blockbuster movie.
From the first appearance of the guests, you can see the dynamics of the friendship. Michael is the peacemaker, the gentle counselor, the ideal partner to Jonathan's bombastic personality. Jonathan, with his braying competitiveness and constant refocusing of attention his way, is an enervating life force — sexy and compelling, but exhausting. Floating around this intense pairing is Jenifer, wired and self-centered in her small, knotted way, and in love with both men.
These are people who judge themselves by what they do. Jonathan is top dog, because he is an actor, someone who has pursued his dream no matter what the cost. Further down the food chain is Jenifer, who was a successful actress until she became seized with stage fright. She bakes the best wheatless, dairyless, sugarless brownies you've ever tasted. She also is having a midlife crisis, which her husband attributes to her not acting anymore.
Even further down the pecking order is Michael, who, we find out, reluctantly gave up a stunning and powerful dance career (the choreographer George Balanchine once complimented his feet) to go into a form of hiding with the more cerebral and analytical social work career.
You would think friends would treat one another better than that, but the three do measure their self-worth by their occupations. They learn later how pathetic that is when galvanizing events stare them in the face.
Even though Jenifer spends most of the first act in a bikini and sarong (self-deprecatingly describing herself as a thin woman covered in a layer of fat), she is anything but relaxed. Jenifer is concerned about her daughter's frail health and draws Michael into her neurotic reasoning by worrying that they might have infected her daughter with the AIDS virus. She wants them to get tested secretly while she's in town.
Drop a bomb like that in the middle of Michael's living room, and the visit becomes something more than social. Much of "Snakebit" is concerned with how the three deal with such seismic changes in their relationship.
Upping the ante in the second act is the appearance of Gary (Ben Hulan), the new boyfriend of Michael's ex-lover. Gary arrives in the house as an inept spy, and he bumbles into helping the friends think about other people for a change.
For most of the play, the trio are maddeningly spinning in their own orbits. Michael is crying "poor me" over his busted love affair and his inability to act on behalf of one of his clients, a 10-year-old abused child with whom he has become close. Jenifer is going ballistic over her real or imagined HIV status, and Jonathan wants everyone to turn their attention to him and the pending movie role.
The characters become increasingly irritating, and then you realize the reason they bug you so is because they either remind you of yourself or people you know. Michael, Jonathan and Jenifer find out, painfully, that real achievement is finding those people in your life whom you trust and love and to whom you make a commitment.
Using AIDS to move a plot along seems a bit callous. But what keeps "Snakebit" from sinking into melodrama are the fine performances by the cast. Mr. Morella is pitch perfect as the morose, unsatisfied Michael, someone who yearns to be a hero but finds himself incapable of leaving the sidelines. He is ably matched in restless angst by the excellent Miss Beard as Jenifer, who projects being high-strung so ably you begin to fear for her cardiac health.
The most striking performance is by Mr. Lodge, who starts out as a non-listener who is so competitive in everyday exchanges you want to hit him with a tranquilizer gun. But then he shows that behind the macho routine is raw emotion — and astonishing insight that is simply breathtaking.
Since it deals with such superficial people, "Snakebit" is not the deepest of plays. Yet the vibrantly drawn characters stay with you long after the last line is spoken.

WHAT: "Snakebit" by David Marshall Grant

WHERE: Round House Theatre, 12210 Bushey Drive, Silver Spring

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through Oct. 1

TICKETS: $21 to $28

PHONE: 301/933-1644

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