Some day real soon, I’m going to ask Jerry Rapier to make me a mix tape. I’ll cherish it forever, and it will never leave my car.
If you’ve never come early to a play directed by Salt Lake City theater stalwart Rapier, you’re not really getting the whole experience. He sets a mood before a single actor sets foot on the stage, creating soundtracks filled with perfect song selections. When Rapier directed last spring’s intoxicating Plan-B Theatre Company production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, he led off with a barrage of 1980s German new wave classics by Nena and Falco. The fun—and the context—were already in the air.
For Pygmalion Productions’ staging of David Marshall Grant’s Snakebit, Rapier again nails his musical selections. In the final minutes before the lights go down, Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” and Robbie Williams’ “Feel” wash over the audience. And in approximately six minutes, he encapsulates Grant’s take on a uniquely Californian brand of narcissism and the longing for an emotionally connected life.
Both are crucial to this funny, touching study of three longtime friends facing a crucial juncture in their relationship. Michael (Kirt Bateman), a gay social worker living in Los Angeles, has just been dumped by his longtime boyfriend at the same time that he is agonizing over a recent scary turn in the life of one young client. It would seem to be the perfect time for a visit from his childhood best pal Jonathan (Dan Larrinaga) and Jonathan’s wife Jenifer (Brenda Sue Cowley), but a sympathetic ear may not be forthcoming. Low-rent actor Jonathan is too busy worrying about a movie audition that may be his big break, while Jenifer—who has her own history with Michael—agonizes over her lack of career goals and her young daughter’s mystery illness.
As one might expect from an actor-turned-writer—Grant played a groundbreaking gay character on thirtysomething, and originated the role of Angels in America’s Joe Pitt on Broadway—the text of Snakebit is full of great stuff for actors. His gags are sharp, but his sense of character is even sharper, shaping a three-way relationship that’s as complex as it is recognizably real. There’s an effective, familiar shorthand to some of the dialogue that gets to the history between the characters, and a convincing sense between Michael and Jonathan of the way childhood friendships can sometimes disintegrate to the point where there’s little between them but history.
Snakebit also finds an entertaining way to address a subject as simple as listening. The heart of the play is interaction between people who are supposed to care about each other, but are so caught up in their own heads that they don’t really pay attention to each other. None of them are bad people, but they’re often pretty self-absorbed. There’s really nowhere besides Los Angeles that this story could have been set.
The action plays out on a simple set of Michael’s apartment, given a nice state of transitional dishevelment by Reb Fleming. Rapier works as well with his actors as he does with his CD collection, coaxing solid performances out of the cast (including David Luna, rounding out the four-player cast as a chatty nutritionist). Larrinaga sometimes overplays Jonathan’s assholeishness, and a pair of voice-overs feel somewhat forced, but on the whole the actors connect and sell Grant’s intimate tale.
It’s no great surprise that Snakebit finds one of its more sublime moments when it turns to song. Struggling to understand one another’s insecurities and needs, Jonathan and Jenifer pause to share one sweetly goofy dance to the Blow Monkeys’ “Digging Your Scene.” It’s not the obvious choice for a romantic interlude, but it finds just the right mood of nostalgia for a moment when a relationship seemed easier. Just another “Music of Your Life” moment from Jerry Rapier, the best DJ in the Salt Lake City theater community.