Play Back

Did he or didn't he? Should he or shouldn't he? Will she or won't she? These questions broadly describe the major dramatic issues at the heart of Stephen Belber's Tape, playing at the Abington Theater and the inaugural production of the Underground Artists Theater Company. The company's mission statement says Underground Artists seeks to "illuminate new works and resurrect the old." Tape has been resurrected, but the experience is not entirely illuminating. The play's setup reunites old high school friends Vincent and Jon in a Motel 6 in Lansing, Mich. Vincent has made the trip to see Jon's film premiere in the Lansing Film Festival. Small talk gives way to Vincent's true motive in catching up with Jon after ten years: Vincent wants to know if Jon date-raped his high school sweetheart.

A heated argument leads to a tape-recorded confession of guilt. But before Jon can appropriately respond to this breach of trust, Vincent hits him with an even larger surprise: Amy, the girl in question, is on her way to the motel.

Jay Pingree's economical scenic design works well with Kogumo Dsi's lighting to lock the audience in the motel with Jon and Vincent. The Abingdon Theater's intimate, three-quarter thrust stage is appropriately used to show that no one is getting out of this room until a resolution is reached.

Jayson Gladstone (Vincent) and Benjamin Schmoll (Jon) present a persuasive portrait of a friendship that has been long smoldering with jealousy. Vincent is clearly the more dominating character in terms of stage presence and volume, but Schmoll gets a lot of mileage out of struggling to match his partner's intensity and intentions. Jon is like an ignored sibling: with a friend like Vincent, it's no wonder he became a filmmaker, since apparently that's all he could do to be heard. Randa Karambelas adds a logical center to the threesome as Amy, by fully embracing her character's prosecutorial side. She doesn't hesitate to render judgment immediately and emotionlessly on her two high school loves.

Tape is a study of the complex mechanics of guilt and responsibility. The text of Belber's script leaves little room for embellishment, and it would be a disservice to try to force a broad concept on the piece. That said, director David Newer fails to present a vital or unique staging. The argument between Jon and Vincent reaches its peak very early in the play and fails to rise or fall with any variation afterward. Newer directs in long strokes of "anger" and "remorse" without allowing the actors to explore the more intricate tones. The script's strength should be enough to carry any production, yet here the play never lives up to its multifaceted potential.

Instead, this production feels like a conservatory scene study, performed before a live audience. Each of the three actors is given his or her moment of focus. Schmoll's awkward apology to Karambelas for the rape, Gladstone's realization that his interference has further complicated the situation, and Karambelas's defiant gambit when she pretends to have both men arrested—these defining moments radiate with humanity in the hands of these actors. Here, the script is used as an educational tool to reach these moments for the cast, but nothing more. As a result, the play never gets its moment.

For those unfamiliar with previous stage and film versions of Tape, Underground Artists' production will serve as a good introduction to the material and to the questions Belber asks about digging up old skeletons. If the goal in producing this script was to provide an able vehicle for the freshman company's actors, it succeeds. But if Newer and his cast's intention was to perform a revealing "resurrection" of the play for new audiences, perhaps they should have left it undisturbed until they could present a more adventurous production.

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