“Tape” by Stephen Belber
Brown Coat Pub and Theatre
111 Grace Street
11/25-27, 8 p.m.; Sunday at 5 p.m.
Tickets: $8-$15 • 910-341-0001
Do people ever change? It’s an ongoing philosophical debate through the ages. We’re born into a personality and we thrive or suffer from our own varied environments, all of which shape us into who and what we are. We make decisions, good and bad; we live with those decisions. But do we ever learn from them, truly? Better yet, can we learn from them without facing them forthright?
These are all underlying questions which come to the surface in Stephen Belber’s play, “Tape.” Having first shown as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, produced by the Actors Theatre of Louisville, in 2000, it was made into a movie starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard in 2001. Locally, Guerilla Theatre is staging it at the Brown Coat Pub and Theatre for one final weekend run.
The show follows a sour reunion of two high-school buddies, which plows into testosterone overdrive as its main players, 28-year-olds Vince and Jon, are still arguing over the same gal, Amy, 10 years after graduation. Vince once was her boyfriend, but Jon slept with her shortly after they split. As they meet in Lansing, Michigan, at a film festival, at which budding filmmaker Jon has a screening—and in the same town for which Amy now serves as assistant DA—old demons and rehashed memories make the reunion anything but jovial.
Played by Shane Bates, Vince embodies the 18-year-old partier (turned man-child) everyone knows. He lives his life on a high and is more concerned with free-for-all appearances (hence, pouring out beer at the opening of the show and scattering empty cans around the room to suggest a party had been ongoing) than positive betterment of his own life. Cocaine, Mary Jane and booze are the main ingredients—one that’s narrowing its path to Loserville rather quickly. Though Vince is a volunteer firefighter, selling dope pays the bills—sometimes even to his fire chief. Within 10 minutes of meeting his character, he’s immediately unlikable.
Bates—who convinced director Nick Smith to do “Tape”—brings a cartoonish villian to life with half-smiles, cocky in venom and dressed in innocent mire. He’ll laugh in jest one minute before maniacally threatening evil the next—all to frame his old pal, Jon, into admitting he date-raped Amy during a high-school party. It’s a macabre scene hidden in “great to see you again” cheer before evolving into “get the hell out of dodge” entrapment. Bates is almost bipolar at the beginning. By the end, his true colors shine as merely clueless, maybe harmless.
Jon is the opposite of Vince: a grad student filmmaker, who wears fancy shoes while riding his moral high horse only to combat his own secret skeletons. Played by Kevin Wilson, he’s tall, lanky and quick-voiced, burdened by philosophical do-rights, which overcompensate a questionable better-man mentality. He talks in circles, vacillating between self-help (“I just want better for you, Vince!”) and bullshit (“I forced her with excessive linguistic pressure!”). Wilson is weaselly in his portrayal of Jon, believable in mass-manipulation but not in strength or candor. Not to say Vince is either, but according to the show’s dialogue, Vince is expected to be violent; Jon, more well-rounded. But violence comes in multiple actions: verbally and physically. Each actor parallels this nicely.
Oddly, Bates’ Vince comes across more as a hippie stoner than an anarchist, which makes the inevitable fight scene questionable at best. The audience sees it coming; it is evident from the static energy permeating the room, but the fellas need to portray more rooted anger preceding it. It all feels more like lip-service than actuality.
However, when Susan Auten enters as Amy, a different pathos takes over the play. Her pent-up pain emanates effortlessly. Auten is piercing in the role: beady, shifting eyes, monotone voice, reserved and protective stance. She’s more open to Vince; guarded toward Jon, and every move Auten makes nonverbally shows this. Her rigidity as a victim and a woman who wants vindication is flawless. That she gets the final say in a scenario she had no hand in creating makes the story more worthwhile. In the end, she’s the star of the show, figuratively and literally.
The set of “Tape” is excellent and spot-on. Immediately, the audience feels the seedy mien of the entire situation; they know nothing good will come of it, but the ride they take to get there is thought-provoking nonetheless. The Motel 6 room is the setup of the show, and contains mismatched bedding, dated decor—from the alarm clock to the floral and seascape paintings—and a sterile white bathroom, all topped off with a half window by the door. Even the props are perfect,, down to the drug dealer’s lunch meat container holding all paraphernalia. The technical staff also keep the show on track with every lighting switch and sound effect. Choices to set up the show are thoughtful, especially with the opening of Tom Waits’ “You Can’t Unring a Bell,” a perfect foreshadowing of events to come when he sings, “Take it like a man/get it through your head/suffer.”
At only an hour long, the play does well at proving how our choices shape and define us, inspite of our guilty admissions—or omissions, as the case may be. No façade will change the heart, regardless of varied truths and perceptions. It reminds me of Neil Young’s “One of These Day,” where he croons “I’m gonna sit down/and write a long letter/To all the good friends I’ve known.” Somehow, if we all fessed up our good and bad to those who’ve encountered them, maybe we could find it within ourselves to move forward without regret. Then again, regret is as probable to growth in life as redemption. If “Tape” does anything, it proves such as true.