Triangular Love

Tom Huston (left), Lanie MacEwan, and Michael Warga slither about Snakebit

Walking out of the Caldwell Theatre's production of Snakebit, you can be certain that 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 started 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 last 15 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 and 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 more aptly be 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."

Michael begins by affirming the universal in us but ends on an entirely more personal note in this refreshingly well-defined homosexual role. It is enlightening to see a departure from the prissy queen or stupid pretty-boy stereotypes that are often the stock of contemporary drama. In one of the play's strongest moments, Michael describes attending a friend's wedding and going home that night with the old man who played the piano. He says, "I imagined all the years, all the toasts he must have sat through. At the end of the night, I went home with him because I didn't think I deserved any better." Jonathan and Jenifer are shocked to see the shame-filled side of their friend's young adulthood -- a time they thought they shared but realize they knew nothing about. Michael Warga, portraying a character on the opposite end of the emotional scale from Jonathan but equally effective, does not sway in his depiction. The material shifts and becomes more intimate, but Michael remains outwardly calm and rational, making his words and actions all the more poignant. He reveals a world that is often assumed and rarely understood, reminding Jonathan and Jenifer that they cannot just literally translate their experience to the homosexual experience and claim to understand him.

Jenifer walks a tight line between the strong energy of the two male roles. Unlike her husband she is not ambitious. She is tired of her marriage; bored with her self-made business as New York's best wheat-free, dairy-free, sugar-free brownie baker; and insecure about her role as a mother. The challenge in the role of Jenifer is to show this passivity without making Jenifer into a nondescript, flat character, and MacEwan accomplishes this.

Despite the heavy emotional content of the play, it would be an injustice not to mention the humor throughout. One of the most obvious vehicles for this humor is Michael's new boyfriend, also named Gary (Mark Rizzo), who pays an unexpected visit to Michael. Although his part is small, Rizzo contributes greatly to the plot and to the character development of Michael, who is at once vulnerable and lonely but becomes sexual and flirtatious in the presence of this young man. Rizzo gives his character -- part surfer dude, part New-Age guru-in-the-making -- a wild, childlike energy that charms the audience and offers comic relief.

Because Jonathan, Michael, and Jenifer change the course of their lives to an extent, the play ends with a sense of resolution, yet one of the smartest things the playwright has done is to leave the relationships as they are -- fragile, conflicting, and in flux. The result is a surprising sense of hope that we carry out of the theater -- something not easily won in a play that deals directly and honestly with adults and their difficult journeys.

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