Subtext of Play Speaks Volumes
By ROBERT KOEHLER, Special to The Times April 20, 2000

      The art of subtext in playwriting--in which a character says one thing, but is thinking something else--has almost become lost in the current theater, where on-the-nose dialogue is king.
      Except subtext is how real people talk in the real world. What is fairly remarkable about writer-director Darryl Vinyard's uneven but extremely smart new play, "Spiders," at the Bitter Truth Theatre is how it affords its characters lots of time for direct-address straight to the audience (an artificial and theatrical device) yet is quite careful about the same characters generally talking in subtext.
      Oh, and it's a pretty interesting view of gay and straight relations, AIDS and the generation gap. Vinyard knows how to write, and he doesn't tackle puny topics.
      We first notice that there's no set on the stage: This is going to be primarily an actor's play with the set in our mind. The five central characters appear onstage one by one and speak without fully telling us what's on their minds.
      Jimmy (Chuck Raucci) works at Sweet Sweats clothing store in West Hollywood's "Boys' Town," but he happens to dislike gays. His co-worker Alex (Michael Taylor Gray) seems to be more upfront, but his flamboyance is just a mask for a welter of conflicting emotions.
      Jimmy's nice girlfriend, Annie (Lara Jill Miller), wants to settle down, marry Jimmy and have babies. Vinyard's healthy imagination falls a bit short in conceptualizing Annie's character.
      Alex's parents, Alan and Janet (Warren Sweeney and Luce Morgan), struggle to accept their son's sexuality, with Janet doing most of the struggling.
      "Spiders" is a play in which the characters' dimensions, random thoughts, asides and especially what they don't tell us are so much more interesting than the skeletal plot that we wish it were all character and no plot.
      Vinyard's skill at creating the texture, surprises and humor from the way people talk to each other can make you giddy with excitement, which is why the story's twists in Act II are such a bummer.
      A character named Doug (Eric Zellar) literally enters from stage left and is mainly a device to make things extremely complicated for the people we've come to know, and he's the only thing in this play that smells like a rat.
      Vinyard is clearly developing his already well-developed play, and he may think Doug belongs in it, but he really doesn't. The play already has quite enough going within this complex and rich quintet of folks without the pure manipulation Doug brings to the party.
      Besides, there's more tragedy, pathos and absurdity in one minute of Morgan's extraordinary performance as Janet than there is in the "events" that clutter the stage late into the play.
      Vinyard also proves a fine director, allowing, for example, Raucci to bring extra levels of sympathy to what on paper may read as Jimmy's pure homophobia. Gray, as Alex, plays against one of theater's worst cliches--the ill-tempered, laugh-a-minute gay guy--and reaches affecting moments of inner anguish.
      Miller is the epitome of performing with subtext, and so is Sweeney, who just wants everyone to get along and accept each other but senses that may be impossible.

      BE THERE
      "Spiders," Bitter Truth Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends April 30. $15. (818) 755-7900. Running time: 2 hours.

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times
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