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A CurtainUp Review

I applied excessive linguistic pressure
--- Jon, trying to explain what happened between him and a girl he hasn't seen in ten years.
How would you feel if, after you've shared your feelings with a friend about a long-ago experiences of which you are not particularly proud, that friend whisked out a tape he'd made of that conversation? Betrayed, angry, scared, confused?

For Jon (Josh Stamberg), one of the three characters in Stephen Belber's play, his high school buddy Vince's Ta, Ta! . . gotcha revelation of that tape triggers all of the above feelings. Vince, who has all the eamarks of a loser (as opposed to Jon who bears the stamp of a winner right down to his $150 shoes) has cleverly steered the conversation during a reunion in Vince's budget motel in Lansing, Michigan to the subject of a long ago incident; to be specific, Jon's drunken night out with a high school co-ed named Amy (Alison West), a night that ended with sex that was either consensual, rape or, as Jon would have it, "linguistically coerced."

For Vince, that tape is a tool to right a wrong - supposedly a wrong done to Amy, but in fact his own lingering resentment and conviction that Amy never slept with him because of that fateful date with Jon. And for playwright Belber that tape is the dramatic device that drives his tight little twenty-first century Rashomon and unpacks a suitcase full of issues: the effect a single incident can have on a friendship, the often questionable basis for a high school friendship and its continuation, the changing perceptions time gives to an event, the new meaning of past relationships in the light of changing sexual politics and the issues of privacy particular to taping conversations

Whew! That's a lot to deal with in eighty minutes, but Belber brings all these concerns to the table -- or I should say, to that tacky motel room in Lansing, where Amy now lives and works as an assistant district attorney and where the men have come to attend the Lansing film festival which is showing Jon's first film. What's more, aided by Geoffrey Nauffts' smart direction and the sizzling performances of Dominic Fumusa and Josh Stamberg, the artifice of the basic setup is quickly forgotten and the play zooms along filled with laughs as well as tension.

To backtrack a bit, Tape as produced by Naked Angels and currently at the tiny Jose Quintero Theater has an interesting history. Belber wrote it as a vehicle for his own long-time buddies, Fumusa and Stamberg. After it was produced downtown (at the Access Theater) and much made over when done at the Humana Festival of 2000), it metamorphosed into a film with low budget production values but a high gloss cast (Ethan Hawke as Vince, Robert Sean Leonard as Jon and Uma Thurman as Amy). Belber then proceeded to rewrite the play. Not having seen the film allowed me to come fresh to this revised version, restaged and recast with the actors for whom it was intended. I do know that the film, like the play, never moved out of the motel room which would seem to me to make what is intimate and just right on stage smack of budget restraints and feel claustrophobic. I would also venture to guess that readers who did see the film will find that these actors and this production provide a very different experience.

The current play has been bookended between an added-on prologue and epilogue which expand the the evaluation of that seminal date over three decades (18-28-38). In the prologue the single set is dark, with only the voices of the eighteen-year-old Jon and Vince heard coming from an unseen room. The scene is just long enough to establish the relationship - two friends whose bond is a lot of wise guy talk about not being or becoming "a dick." The epilogue ties neatly to Jon's filmmaking career and also a bit of business that Mr. Nauffts has astutely set up before the play gets under way. The television set that is part and parcel of any motel room runs through most of a Seinfeld episode thus linking Jon, Vince and Amy to the Seinfeldians who made a cult out of blowing life's minor events all out of proportion. The stage TV set has a mirror edge which takes on new meaning during the epilogue when Jon, now making a documentary of his own life, looks back yet again while Belber divorces him and Vince and Amy from the Seinfeld ghetto of perpetual post adolescence.

The meat and potatoes of the play is the motel reunion when Belber's trio is twenty-eight. Jon focused on the filmmaking career that has been his dream since high school and seeing himself as having moved beyond his days of being a sexually aggressive jock, is not eager to revisit the incident which Vince insists on gnawing on as a dog would a bone. Vince is an all-around mess whose "career" consists of dealing drugs and whose girl friend has tossed him out because of his violent tendencies. Since Jon makes his disapproval of Vince quite clear one can only wonder why he asked him to come to the film festival. The apparent need for this sort of oneupmanship lends credibility to his shift from cool to vulnerable after Vince stages his confrontation by way of the tape and a meeting with Amy.

Amy, played by newcomer Alison West, has her own take on her long ago relationship with both men. She is the pivotal character in the drama, the fuse that needs to be set off for Jon and Vince to move beyond their perceptions of what happened on that date. However, it's Stamberg and Fumusa who set off the sparks on stage and Ms. West is stuck with the play's most predictable and manufactured plot twist.

The prologue and epilogue, Belber has added provide nice touches, but the epilogue tends to defuse the real strength of his play, which is to raise more questions than it can neatly answer. That said, Tape is a well directed, superbly acted and very much worth seeing.

Written by Stephen Belber
Directed by Geoffrey Nauffts
Cast: Dominic Fumusa, Josh Stamberg, Alison West
Set Design: George Xenos
Costume Design: Sarah Beers
Lighting Design: Greg Mac Pherson
Sound Design: Roger Raines
Running Time: 80 minutes without intermission
Naked Angels at Jose Quintero 212-244-7529
1/8/02; opening 1/17/02
Tue - Sat at 8pm - $25
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 1/15 press preview
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