Amicus Theatre Company

at Angel Island

Alan Bowne wrote just a handful of plays before he died of AIDS in 1989, but they mark him as a significant artist who could blend dark, gritty realism with wicked wit, genuine theatrical excitement, and sharp social criticism. Like William S. Burroughs, his spiritual godfather, Bowne focused on underground experience as a microcosm of “straight” society: his tough, detailed portraits of gay hustlers and drug addicts shed satiric light on the pretensions of the power brokers of public life. His full-length plays Forty-Deuce and Beirut have each received several productions in Chicago. Forty-Deuce uses the pathetic business dealings of a gang of junkie male prostitutes to critique Wall Street ethics; Beirut (the basis for Daybreak, a recent made-for-TV movie on HBO) is a Romeo-and-Juliet story for the age of AIDS, with two young lovers defying the politics of quarantine in a fascist, slightly futuristic America.

Now the Amicus Theatre Company has mounted a superbly acted production of A Snake in the Vein, a lesser-known one-act that delivers plenty of potent theatrics in its one hour. Workshopped off-off-Broadway in 1985 under the title The Beany & Cecil Show, but not produced in its final form until after Bowne’s death, Snake is partly a scathing examination of the failure of the educational system and partly a meditation on the myth of Eden as the seat of original sin. Like Bowne’s other plays, it’s also a slice-of-life study of junkies and queers in the lower depths of New York; and like Bowne’s other plays, it’s raw, sometimes obscene, suspenseful, often moving, and viciously funny. Indeed, it gives new meaning to the old Mad magazine slogan: “Humor in a jugular vein.”

The setting is a New York drug rehabilitation clinic–specifically a room inhabited by two patients, a strung-out young East Village rock musician named J.J. and a strangely aloof gay called simply Man. (“I’m waiting for my man,” drawls Lou Reed on the scratchy Velvet Underground record that sets the scene.) Shrewdly spotting J.J. as, in the youth’s own words, “dysfunctionated,” the haughty homo begins jabbing at his jittery roommate, mocking his masculinity, his impotence, his homophobia, and above all his insistence that he’s only a casual drug user. J.J. in turn lashes out at the older fellow’s homosexuality and Jewishness, but Man is unfazed; he’s long past being wounded by insults from Italian street punks like J.J.

Man’s weak spot, which J.J. finally hits, is his long-lost idealism: in a former life, before heroin, he was a public high school music teacher. (“The little bastards didn’t like Mozart,” he sneers, “they preferred the Ramones.”) Now J.J. has an opening to strike at Man with the weapon every teacher fears: the contempt of a disrespectful student. “You was the fat little jewboy standin onna sidelines,” J.J. sneers, finally drawing blood, ” . . . the one we useta stingray wit’ wet towels inna showers. . . . So that’s how you come to be a teacher. You wanted to get back at us!”

Man keeps after J.J. because he needs something from him. Not sex, but something more intimate and more desperate. All of his veins are exhausted from years of mainlining, he explains–all but one, the one in his neck, and he wants J.J. to shoot him up. In return, he’ll give the youth his stash of smack. The fruit of knowledge–an apple from teacher, an apple from the serpent of Eden, given to a lower-Manhattan Adam who wears not a fig leaf but a studded leather jockstrap.

Speaking sometimes directly and at other times through his alter ego–a green hand puppet of Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent, who emerges as a nearly independent third character in these bizarre exchanges–Man mocks and humiliates and ultimately deceives J.J. But he teaches him, too–teaches him to face his shame and guilt and mortality.

Tautly staged by Scott Tomhave in a hospital-room setting whose bare, seedy whiteness is relieved only by a few feel-good posters tacked to the wall (one, headlined “Dear World,” is a free-verse paean to holistic environmentalism), Snake is an intense hour of verbal sparring played to the hilt by Robert A. Mullen as the droll, dried-out Man and Mark Vallarta as the glittery-eyed, hyperactive J.J. The gritty vernacular in Bowne’s plays can lead actors to emphasize the scripts’ downbeat naturalism, but that’s a mistake. Mullen and Vallarta instead aim for maximum dynamic variety; they discover the bold, ironic theatricality in the dialogue as well as the coarse reality, and play A Snake in the Vein for the stark, sizzling, high-energy piece it is.