Reality Sort of Bites
Some would say it's a guy thing -- crushed cans of Schlitz strewn across the floor of a Motel 6 room, belching as an alternative to conversation, and the inevitable discussion about the undeniably rhetorical question, "How could you be my best friend and screw the love of my life?" Such is the stuff of posthigh-school get-togethers, and the reunion of high-school buddies Vince (Paul Tei) and Jon (Christopher Carlisle) is no exception -- in the beginning, at least.
Jon, a semisuccessful small filmmaker, and Vince, a would-be volunteer firefighter and small-time drug dealer, have reunited in their hometown of Lansing, Michigan, to celebrate the opening of Jon's first film. Nitpicking arguments (it's obvious Jon thinks he's qualified to set Vince on the straight and narrow) turn into allegations and ultimately a heated argument about an old girlfriend, Amy (Michelle Riu). When Vince accuses Jon of having committed date rape on Amy, tempers fly, accusations are hurled, and tape recorders are revealed, making for an interesting excavation of memory, trauma, and culpability. Early in GableStage's production of Tape, a tape recording appears to be capable of bringing the obscure to light, of making the private public and the unspeakable repeatable. Just press rewind and play again, right? Fortunately this conceit is quickly undermined. What keeps this play engaging is the shifting of blame, guilt, and veiled motives that float about the seedy motel room, often ambiguously.
The play opens with Vince simultaneously chugging one beer and pouring another down the sink, then throwing the cans by the bed. He is obviously creating a scene, running about straightening items in the room, then returning to a black duffel bag and pulling out more beers. Despite all of this activity, we never actually know why Vince needs to scatter the beer cans all over the place. Perhaps Vince is not the loser he appears to be. Perhaps he is ruthless and ingenious. Perhaps he's a Roller Derby queen trapped in the body of a man.
The opening scene hints at a motive that is never fully developed. The rest of the play diverges from this intriguing intro, and Vince is painted to varying degrees as a loser. Tei compensates for the play's lack of truly stunning lines by making Vince gritty, physical, and full of gestures. He paces. He picks his bellybutton. With the enthusiasm of a Labrador retriever, he bounces back to the black bag (a wellspring of beers, cocaine, marijuana, and amateur recording equipment). In short he's an endearing asshole. He is also Jon's alter ego, reminding him that statements such as, "By applying excessive linguistic pressure, I coerced her to have sex with me," are the kinds of things mediocre filmmakers say when they are bullshitting themselves and everyone else in the room. Producers and directors take note: A niche is not a grave, at least in the case of Paul Tei. Tei's comfort level on stage, his range, and his use of irony point to a versatility and capability that have not been sufficiently exploited.
In contrast Carlisle's delivery is so methodical in the beginning, it's hard to believe he is the same actor who delivered his lines so brilliantly (alongside Tei) in New Theatre's recent production of Never the Sinner. This methodicalness can be attributed largely to the script. Lines such as, "We should just accept the fact that we are a little different from one another and let the friendship develop from there," reveal that Jon is self-important and self-righteous but do so in the most mundane manner.
The preachy monologues and Vince's reply -- "What can I say? I'm a dick" -- leave little to the imagination. Still, the script does have its funny lines, as when Vince claims, "I'm too high to be high and mighty."
Playwright Stephen Belber sometimes hits on the sociocultural specificities of this late-twenties/early-thirties age group, and those scenes are funny. For instance Jon lectures Vince about why women aren't going to tolerate his explosive behavior: "There are too many guys out there with unresolved potential and violent tendencies. Women want different things."
Vince asks, "Like what?"
"I don't know, like Enya," Jon replies. These characters are of a generation that would have gone to high school with John Cusack's character in the film High Fidelity, and the actors play it accordingly, with their laid-back social analyses and recreational drug use.
But at times Belber is downright careless. At one point Amy says, "I went to school in Ann Arbor, so I just stayed in Lansing." Minimal research would have revealed that these two cities are about an hour apart and have about as much in common with each other as Hialeah does with Boca Raton.
Carlisle and Tei do find a bit of their old chemistry when the physicality of the play is intensified. The fight scene, which is skillfully choreographed by Ken Clement, is believable as the rough-and-tumble of two guys who haven't had a scuffle since the third grade.
As Amy, Riu has a strong but low-key stage presence. Amy is a pretty girl who can talk about perestroika and throw back a few beers -- a woman who has become a successful lawyer and community figure while "not getting fat," as Vince keeps pointing out. Riu's neutrality and controlled feistiness complement the two male leads, and she finds a nice balance between cheerleader and ball breaker. Because Amy is the third point that creates the triangular relationship, her role holds the most dramatic potential. Her character could have been more effectively fleshed out by the writer and director.
While this could not be called a suspenseful performance, the twists in the plot keep the static set animated. The script also leans slightly toward the farcical. Midway through the play we realize this is not a search for truth but rather a sidelong glance and nudge at what passes for truth. Satire is hinted at, but in the end we are left wondering what the point is. Why would Vince, a slacker extraordinaire, go to so much trouble and orchestrate what he himself calls "the most deliberate act I've ever done"? Just to spite his best friend from high school 12 years after the friend stole his girl? This lack of clarity creates a lack of intensity -- and it keeps the play from realizing its full potential for both satire and suspense.
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