Theater archives

Out of the Past


In its original form, Stephen Belber’s Tape was an elaborate mind game whose craftiest trick was its evasion of a clear outcome. Locked in a single room with a pair of combative friends, one of whom may or may not have raped the other’s girlfriend 10 years ago in high school, the play offered a feast of subtext and suggestion in lieu of just deserts. For Naked Angels’s revival, Belber attaches an expository prologue and epilogue to the knotty main event: Vince (Dominic Fumusa), a mercurial, coke-dealing burnout, arranges a stilted reunion with old buddy Jon (Josh Stamberg) in a dank Michigan motel, ostensibly to mark the occasion of Jon’s entry in the local film festival. Their edgy repartee, beginning as jocular button-pushing, slowly gives way to overt hostility and a blurted confession, surreptitiously recorded (hence the title). The downward Möbius spiral gains dizzying momentum with the arrival of the purported victim, Amy (Alison West).

To give away more might violate Tape‘s many purposefully hazy intrigues. Loud and blustery as Vince and Jon may be, the audience is still merely eavesdropping on them through a muffling wall of unspoken backstory and selective recall. Taking a thematic cue from Beckett (while the verbal sparring keeps rhythm to Mamet and Miller), Tape‘s overarching subject is the persistence of memory: the unreliable narratives it spins, its pushover mutability, its mediation by technology. A video image of the 18-year-old Amy hovers ghostlike over the final scene—here Belber borrows a page from filmmaker Atom Egoyan (whose superb adaptation of Tape‘s direct antecedent, Krapp’s Last Tape, played the 2000 New York Film Festival).

The revival, directed by Geoffrey Nauffts and spurred by Richard Linklater’s recent movie version, seems somewhat cornered by its new, unwieldy framing device, especially at the finale: Having amply proven the duplicity of remembrance and the multiplicity of truth, Belber then sends in his players to bat clean-up with a trio of monologues. Fumusa (fresh from another hyperverbose three-hander, Melissa James Gibson’s [sic]) and Stamberg are ferociously convincing as arrested-fratboy opponents, but they suffer under the strain of suddenly having to sell their characters to the audience at face value.

The mawkish summarizing blunts but doesn’t blot out Tape‘s corrosive pathos, rooted in the psychic damage wrought by years of unrequited love, gnawing jealousy, and genuine outrage. Nor, thankfully, does it bring the endlessly elusive Amy into reductive focus. She refuses to take the place that Vince and Jon have marked out for her in the theater of victimhood—heroic in her very opacity, she is Tape‘s best-kept mystery.

Ambiguity of intent is not a factor in Donna Linderman’s production of Jig Saw, in which every ulterior motive is telegraphed with exhaustingly furious winks and nudges. Dawn Powell’s 1934 comedy of manners (part of the Sightlines Theater Company’s ongoing “Permanent Visitor: A Festival Celebrating Dawn Powell”) hardly lacks for whiskey-lubricated one-liners, and this revival makes sure to italicize and underline each choice barb. A bored socialite (Gabriele Schafer) and her nubile, possibly deranged daughter (Clea Rivera) compete for the same dissolute playboy (Robert Serrell) while a cabal of their various friends and lovers, seeped in stagnant luxury, trade bitchy quips over cocktail shakers. The pivotal bond between Mom and her insufferably smarmy kept man (Bill Tatum) is left woefully undeveloped, though a secondary pair of backbiters trade Significant Glances for the play’s duration—are they plotting some intrigue, or simply vying for the intramural mugging trophy? This Jig Saw evokes less the droll chamber music of Powell’s contemporary Nöel Coward than the cacophony stirred by the recent revival of The Women—the genders neutralized but the gargoyles just as numerous.

Related Article:

Charles McNulty on Dawn Powell’s Jig Saw