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Josh Stamberg, Alison West,
and Dominic Fumusa in Tape
(Photo: George Xenos)
Stephen Belber's Tape opens on two high school seniors named Vince and Jon, smoking dope and talking about the future. They don't know what they want to be yet, only that they don't want to be bankers. Cut to 10 years later and a tiny motel room in Lansing, Michigan: Vince, wearing nothing more than boxers and a T-shirt, is unshaven and still high after all these years. Jon knocks and enters, wearing a stylish leather jacket and $150 shoes. He's in town to show his new movie at the local film festival and, at least in theory, Vince is in town to see it.

Best friends or not, the contrast between the two is impossible to ignore, for them no less than for us. Jon is the rising star: talented, driven, responsible, and mature. Vince is the loser, a drug dealer and volunteer firefighter. No more than a few minutes of happy reminiscing go by before Jon starts gently but self-importantly berating his friend about wasting his life. When Jon tells Vince that he's capable of greater things, it's hard to believe: Vince appears to be little more than a stoner who never really left high school. Indeed, when a reference to Irving Berlin comes out of Vince's mouth, it seems jarring, as if the writer were being clever at the expense of his character--but it's also a hint that Vince isn't dumb and that he is capable of greater things.

Yes, this is another play about people facing the past, but Tape goes beyond the clichés of its unremarkable situation. It is about many things: differing perceptions of long-ago events, the ugly competitiveness of friendship, owning up to one's sins, and--suddenly, startlingly--the definition of rape. But, in microcosm, Belber's unique story is about two high school buddies meeting to confront one another on various issues.

The immediate problem is Vince's lack of focus, which Jon points out as he idly flips through the complimentary Gideon Bible found in the motel room. Jon uses himself as an example of someone who, as an artist, is doing something important with his life by contributing to the 'larger debate' in society. The past issue that comes up relates to a girl named Amy (Alison West), with whom both guys were involved in their final year of high school; Vince dated her, but Jon slept with her. It is when Vince confronts Jon about his one-night fling with Amy that the tables turn.

Josh Stamberg plays Jon as stiff-backed, with a constant look of restrained superiority on his face; the character sees himself as impervious to criticism of his ethics, absolved of past wrongs simply because they're in the past. But as Vince (played expertly as a troubled and swaggering buffoon by Dominic Fumusa) becomes increasingly serious, intense, and accusatory, Jon is unnerved. With his self-assurance melting away, he walks over to the nightstand and shoves the Bible into the drawer. Vince corners him into an admission of his guilt and, when Jon finally breaks, Vince is sure to get it all on tape. Then Amy, an assistant district attorney now living in Lansing, turns up--and the tables turn again.

What Tape is really about is ownership of the past. One Vince has secured Jon's confession on tape, he feels that he owns it (and Vince has his own ugly reasons for wanting to corner his friend this way). But Jon is the one who truly owns the recollection of his wrongdoing, because he was there. It's his memory. Yet it turns out that Amy remembers her encounter with Jon in an entirely different way. So who's right? Who's wrong? What really happened?

Belber has dealt with such questions before: His Finally, which appeared in the 2000 NYC Fringe Festival, had four characters telling various versions of the events that led to an act of violence. It was a brutal and cathartic theatrical experience. Tape approaches the idea differently, putting all the viewpoints in one room together and allowing them to bounce off of one another. The end result is more interesting than satisfying and leaves the audience with more questions than answers--which is exactly what great theater often does.

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