“TAPE”: Stephen Belber’s Drama Busts Out of the Zoom Box!

Live theater has always been a continuously evolving art form, priding itself on finding new ways to challenge everyone involved: aspiring playwrights, the performers, the creative teams behind the scenes, and of course, the audience.  It’s a safe bet that no other time in history has been more challenging for theater movers-and-shakers (and those who love them) than this year, when performance spaces both big and small were forced to go dark.  Going from live to virtual is a test of creativity in itself.  But when a theater piece not only manages to deliver its message in a new format, but also incorporates that new format (in this case, via Zoom: a distinctly emblematic phenomenon for 2020…) into the play itself, AND take it to new levels, then it can make for an artistic revelation.  Such is the case with Stephen Belber’s provocative 1999 drama Tape, which was already no less than a bold exploration of sexual mores upon its debut in 1999. Tape has now been adapted for the virtual format by Neal Davidson (who also stars in the play) and is directed with multi-faceted verve by John Dapolito.  

The first two characters we meet in Tape are Vince DeMarco and Jon Saltzman.  We learn that the two twenty-somethings have been buddies since high school.  While watching these self-described “oldest friends in the world” in 2020, side by side during a Zoom meeting, the audience observes that the pair have taken somewhat different pathways since teen-hood.  Vince (Travis Schweiger) is a blunt-spoken volunteer firefighter who supplements his income by selling … shall we say, “pharmaceuticals”  He also indulges on those “party favors” himself– in a big way.  In fact, Vince spends almost the entire running time of Tape in a Motel 6 room, unshaven and disheveled, in the throws of a wild drug-and-booze bender.  His friend Jon (Neal Davidson) is a fledgling independent filmmaker who is about to celebrate the premiere of his new movie at a film festival the next day.  Jon calls his friend out for having “violent tendencies” and for being, among other things, “rude for the sake of being rude”.   Vince throws it right back at his friend-cum-frenemy:  He loudly challenges Jon’s attempt to paint himself as a posturing moral compass and cuts right through his bud’s bombastic style of talking (“Private dope delivery to ex-hippies does not a mature man make!”), his “political appropriateness”, and his aspiring worldly ambitions.  Humor (of which there is a great deal of in Tape...) notwithstanding, the conversations between Vince and Jon soon become no less than brutal, increasing in intensity along the parallel cocaine-drawn line of  Vince’s increasing intoxication.  For this reviewer, Stephen Belber’s dialogue evokes another playwright:  Neil LaBute, particularly with LaBute’s stage and filmed versions of In The Company of Men and his 1998 movie Your Friends & Neighbors. As in those pieces, the audience of Tape gets to eavesdrop on the raw conversations that male friends sometimes have about women.  Indeed, there is a fascinatingly voyeuristic vibe for Tape’s audience: a bold bluntness that may have been somewhat mitigated in theater culture at large as we move into the more “sensitive” era of the #MeToo movement.  If theater has indeed changed to reflect our culture at large (evidenced, intentionally or not, through the more mannered style of Davidson’s Jon), then Schweiger’s brash, unapologetic Vince is indeed a unfiltered throwback.   The first of several shocking moments in Tape comes when a ten year old sexual secret between two of the play’s three characters is revealed– and that secret is recorded on the play’s titular “Tape”. This revelation, however, is just the beginning… 

Ah, yes… About that third character: The oft-mentioned Amy (Chelsea J. Smith) , who had the distinction of being intimately involved with both Vince and Jon in one way or another back in high school, soon joins the Zoom meeting– presumably before planning to meet Vince in person.  Now an assistant district attorney,  Amy is more than able to hold her own alongside Vince and Jon’s pissing match.  As mentioned before, the play’s pivotal revelation of a sexual secret is just the first of several climaxes.  Individual “morals” become ambiguous.  Twists and turns abound.  What really happened?  What are the true motivations of each of these three characters?  The conclusion, which feels like the emotional equivalent of  sobriety forcing its way through after a Saturday night of hard drinking, can be perfectly summed up by this reviewer with the tagline for the 1999 movie adaption of David Mamet’s Oleanna: “Whatever side you take, you’re wrong.”

All three actors are exceptional, with Travis Schweiger delivering a truly inimitable performance. The viewer believes he will bust right out of the computer screen. Somehow, we as the audience are made to believe we’re not supposed to like this character who stuffs socks in his boxer shorts and then uses them to wipe sweat off his forehead.  But you simply can’t look away from Vince’s angry mania.  The performances by Davidson and Smith are equally as intense in their own right. Smith’s striking looks are particularly well suited for her closeups as she looks unwavering into the camera. All the actors use Zoom’s technological perks to its fullest possibility for maximum potency.   This Tape may be virtual, but let’s just say it goes WAY outside the box: in this case, the Zoom box!

Presented by The Shared Screen, Tape continues through Monday, September 28th, with a continuation announced for late November. Post-Show Expert Panel Discussions will be presented after each of these November shows!  Visit https://www.thesharedscreen.com/tape for more information and to stay posted!

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