Actor David Marshall Grant Gets Snakebit by the Playwriting Bug

Actor David Marshall Grant Gets Snakebit by the Playwriting Bug It's a good thing David Marshall Grant has acting to keep him busy. For if he had spent the last decade doing nothing but trying to get his first play, Snakebit, produced in New York, he might well have gone crazy from the wait.
Left to right:  David Alan Basche, Geoffrey Nauffts and Jodie Markell in Snakebit.
Left to right: David Alan Basche, Geoffrey Nauffts and Jodie Markell in Snakebit. (Photo by Photo by Jace Alexander)

It's a good thing David Marshall Grant has acting to keep him busy. For if he had spent the last decade doing nothing but trying to get his first play, Snakebit, produced in New York, he might well have gone crazy from the wait.

Grant, best known for his performance as Joe Pitt in Tony Kushner's Angels in America , began writing Snakebit -- which is only now receiving its premiere at the Grove Street Playhouse -- in 1989. For a while, it sat in the lower desk drawer where most first plays bide their time. Finally, in 1993, actor D.W. Moffat gave it a look and decided he wanted to do it at Chicago's (now defunct) Remains Theatre. According to Grant, the staging -- starring John Benjamin Hickey and Moffat and directed by Campbell Scott -- went well. New York's tony theatre troupe, Naked Angels, grew interested. Joe Mantello, Grant's Angels co star, wanted to direct. The summer after Angels closed, Mantello and Grant took Snakebit to New York Stage and Film's summer program at Vassar College. Hickey again starred, along with Jon Tenney and Matt McGrath.

Suddenly, all seemed set for smooth transfer to New York. The show would open at Circle Rep. Only, a few things went wrong. Hickey was cast in Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! . Tenney was cast in the Lincoln Center Theatre revival of The Heiress . McGrath got a television gig. And Circle Rep went out of business.

"It was awful," said Grant. Snakebit went back for a long rest in the drawer.

Grant didn't entirely despair. Rather, he took a page from his own writing. "Like the play says, you can either roll over and be dead or fight and try to fix it. Life will always have roadblocks. If it didn't, we'd all be eating peeled grapes by the pool." The Knute Rockne advice is easier to take from Grant than from Jonathan Diamond (David Alan Basche), the character who spouts is in the play. There are plenty of Hollywood plays out there, each filled with abominable showbiz figures the playwrights have no doubt dealt with first-hand. But, even among that group of monsters and megalomaniacs, Jonathan would stand out as a singular creation. It's as if Grant has taken all the unsavory characteristics he knows all too well an actor can possess -- arrogance, vanity, self-absorption -- an concentrated them into one uber-actor. Jonathan pummels his wife, Jenifer (Jodie Markell), and best friend Michael, (Geoffrey Nauffts), will attitude, mood swings, emotional demands and an unforgiving set of rules to live by. He pushes and flaunts his flaws with such utter conviction, he almost succeeds in selling them as virtues.

Jonathan's not all bad. As he says near the end, if either he or Michael could adopt half of the other's qualities, that person would unquestionably prevail as a human being. Michael is a former dancer and, most recently, former social worker, whose lover, Gary, has just left him for another man, also named Gary. What Jonathan is to grim determination, Michael is to thoughtful vacillation. The insecure, unhappy Jenifer, meanwhile, has had ample opportunities to understand the attractions in both men, leading to this play's very complicated central love triangle. Following a shattering revelation, each gets a lesson in how much they will grab and how much they will give away to get the life they want.

Snakebit is not Grant's first attempt at playwriting. He made another try, back in 1982. The work received a few readings. After one, Grant's friend, playwright Jon Robin Baitz, approached the actor. "I've got some good news and some bad news," said Baitz. "Which do you want to hear first?" Grant opted for the bad. "The bad news is: You've got to put this play away," decreed Baitz. "The good news is: You're a writer and you must write another play."

The current production owes its life to Ilana Levine, a Naked Angels actress who saw the New York Stage and Film production. She signed on as Jenifer and peaked new interest in a New York production. (In another mishap, Levine dropped out when offered the role of Lucy in the upcoming revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown . Markell stepped into the role).

Snakebit is very much an actor's production. Aside from actor playwright Grant, the production is director by frequent performer Jace Alexander. Unsurprisingly, the venture has produced a sense of solidarity among the creative team.

"I'm an actor and I understand actors very well," said Grant. "I see what they're going through and recognize it completely. Nine times out of ten, if an actor's having problems with a line, you have to listen to it. They're up there trying to make it work. As an actor, any advice I'd give to a playwright is listen to your actors.

"This show is a lesson in pride," he continued, "in that acting is an incredibly hard job. I sit back in the audience and think it's so safe back here." Safe enough to give up acting? "I can conceive of a period of time where writing might take precedence. I can't see, however, that that would last forever. Writing is very solitary experience. It's kind of numbing that way. Acting is a completely community experience. You're never alone. It's a good compliment to writing. One feeds the other."

--Robert Simonson