Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 31 July, 2003

It's the anti-Oleanna. Where David Mamet's play derided the vocabulary of political correctness that could call any non-consensual physical contact "rape", Stephen Belber's Tape takes seriously the notion that apparently consensual sex could in fact be so coercive as to be inadvertent date-rape. More immediately, where Mamet's college-professor protagonist spends the play denying the accusation, here it is the alleged perpetrator, Jon, who confesses, ten years on... only to be rebutted with a curt "No, you didn't" by his supposed victim, who is moreover now an assistant District Attorney and thus knows doubly whereof she speaks. Perhaps.

Belber packs a huge amount into only 70 minutes, and the sex issue is really only an eye-catching pretext. The real themes investigated as Jon, Vince and Amy meet up again a decade after their confused last days at high school are identity, definition and perspective. Things begin at an easy pace, as we are invited to consider which man is being more true to himself: Jon, by reinventing himself as a fashionable if small-time film director, or Vince, who has remained a drunk and a stoner. Their initial verbal fencing is that of a couple trying understandably to deny that they are no longer as close as they once were. When the matter of Amy is raised, we get into the accuracy of memory and the rewriting of history. Amy's own arrival takes things up several gears: never mind history, who owns facts themselves, and can they exist in isolation from an agenda? Jon is pursuing his new-found desire to confess and expiate, Vince his long-nurtured hunger to regain control of at least the ghost of the teenage Amy he loved. Naturally, neither man ends up happy.

In Geoffrey Nauffts' taut production, recreated in London's Soho Theatre with the original New York and Los Angeles cast, Alison West adroitly makes Amy the strongest character (just hear the applause she gets!) to disguise the fact that she's also the most sketchily written, simply a lippy catalyst to give Jon (Josh Stamberg) and Vince (Dominic Fumusa) each a reality check. What makes the play is the shifting ground of uneasiness, hostility and above all incomprehension of self and others alike. Even the tape on which crucial moments are recorded is no guarantee of truth or accuracy.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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