The play “Tape” has itself already been taped, or, more accurately, digitized on digital video. That version, starring Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman and directed by Richard Linklater, premiered at last year’s Sundance, received a brief limited release, and is just now appearing on DVD. But since the work is in part about how a single perspective of an event can’t tell the whole story, it seems appropriate that Gotham theater company Naked Angels has produced “Tape” in New York and now in L.A., fighting the perception that a play is an irrelevancy once a film has been made. And the troupe makes a good case in this concentrated, energized staging at the Coast Playhouse that shows off two seething lead performances by members of the original theatrical cast.
After the film, Belber added a prologue and epilogue to the New York staging. For L.A., he’s kept the prologue but excised the epilogue, and while the piece stops a bit abruptly, there’s no need for more. In fact, the brevity of “Tape,” the fact that it doesn’t ramble its way into a more traditional full-length running time, makes it a more enjoyable experience than it would otherwise be. As is, it’s a fully realized 65 minutes, both provocative and irritating. It’s like a good friend playfully poking you in the ribs — part of its charm is that it’s so darn annoying.
The metaphor is apt in large measure because this is a play about two such good friends, Vince (Dominic Fumusa) and Jon (Josh Stamberg). In the prologue, we hear the two high school buddies offstage, smoking a bong and discussing what to do if one of them ever becomes — gasp — a banker. Then we jump 10 years for the play proper. Vince is still an unrepentant juvenile, making his living by dealing drugs. Jon has become — gasp — a filmmaker, and the two meet up in a seedy hotel room — the seedy nicely captured in George Xenos’ set design — in Lansing, Mich. Vince has arrived there to see his old friend Jon’s film screened at the local festival.
From the start, it’s apparent that Belber, like fellow Naked Angels member Kenneth Lonergan, has a gift for capturing the way young men talk to each other, for subtly depicting the interrelationship between their closeness and their competitiveness. But the language is not the most crucial element of the play; what keeps this show going are the sharp dramaturgical turns Belber lays out. One minute, Jon is lecturing Vince from a figurative pedestal, and the next Vince has, figuratively again, knocked him down-to-size. Through sheer force of obnoxiousness, Vince manages to elicit from Jon an incriminating statement about a not-so-innocent sexual encounter Jon had with an ex-girlfriend of Vince’s as they were finishing high school. What’s more, Vince records said comment on tape, and insists he’s going to play it for said girl, Amy, who happens to be a district attorney in Lansing and happens to be coming over to the hotel room. When you’ve got friends like this, who needs enemies?
Filled with rich ambiguities, the play never settles into the predictable. It does reach its peak soon after Amy (Alison West) arrives, and devolves a bit from there, with the evaluation of everyone’s motivations becoming a bit less interesting as we go along. Still, it’s a thoughtful play and a surprisingly nuanced one, despite the insistent unpleasantness of its characters.
Smiling and smoking pot, imbibing beer and making accusations, Fumusa’s Vince is a jittery figure, convincingly unpredictable enough to keep us effectively off-balance. Without question, Fumusa makes us believe that Vince, described as having “violent tendencies,” has some deep-seated darkness and pain simmering beneath his jovial surface.
While Vince is certainly the primary provocateur who drives the plot, the story is ultimately even more about Jon, in many ways the more interesting character because he has a chance of changing. Stamberg smartly plays both Jon’s desire to get out of this situation and his equal, even overpowering, need to confront his demons once and for all.
West’s arrival dampens the intensity a notch, but she very successfully keeps the play’s juggling ambiguities in the air. Geoffrey Naufft’s direction keeps a crisp pace and gives equal weight to his two lead performers, who have clearly developed some significant chemistry.