I find Identity Productions’ Tape moderately mediocre on the level of much Fringe and most Los Angeles storefront theater: a pudgy, imagination-free production of a play whose only appeal should be to people with tastes shaped by acronym detective TV shows (which the author, Stephen Belber, sometimes writes).
But with the possible exception of Colin Mitchell’s Mission to Mate, so far Tape may fairly be called the best-reviewed show of the ’12 Fringe. I’m only tangentially interested in exploring the question of what that says about Fringe. The real question: if we’re calling this good theater, what has happened to our sense of proportion?
I address myself to only a couple of the raving critics, two professionals I consider well-positioned by experience and taste to have known better. Both have long records of contribution to the industry. Les Spindle enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a critic’s critic. No less does Bob Verini, who also from the goodness of his heart has been generous enough to come to my defense once or twice when I start these arguments. I respect both of them for body of work and time served. That said:
Les Spindle: “I’ll go on a limb to say this is the finest Hollywood Fringe Festival production I’ve seen since the festival’s 2010 bow.” That’s a spindly limb to begin with, sir. Either you’re excusing the Fringe for showcasing tame yet unpolished undergraduate emoting, or you’re congratulating this dud for being the shallowest pockmark in the Sea of Tranquility. I’ll agree that Fringe isn’t the place to see the best theater, but if this is the best Fringe has to offer, that means there’s no point seeing any of it. That ain’t so, is it?
And, Mr Spindle, you call this “Belber’s smart and layered script.” Let’s examine that:
1. A chestnut set-up (reunion of high school friends: Mr Belber has either an obsession or a limited scenario stockpile).
2. Characters copied from the Book of Relationship Templates (Slack Stoner [Donald Rizzo], Hot Smarty [Juliana Long Tyson], Artsy Slickster [Jason Karasev]. Mr Hollywood Writer deserves a special shaming for that last one; look outside your immediate acquaintance, won’t you?).
3. The least surprising reveal since rabbit met hat (man goaded into admitting guilt at wrong moment. Perry Mason, anyone?).
4. A thematic twist that was not new when Akutagawa wrote Rashomon. Yes, we see only what our limited vision allows; but the proverbial blind men and elephants would constitute a more interesting play than this one, because at least there would be elephants to look at, instead of a Motel 6 with drugs smeared on the bureau.
5. As with many Belber plays, there is a mackerel of great idea here – in this case, identity as selective memory as self-sabotage – but wrapped in a greasy, year-old tabloid. Yes, because that other typical Belberism, the hot-button jumping-off point, shouts its headline here as well. In 2010′s Dusk Rings a Bell, the gratuitous (because thematically irrelevant) gay-bashing poses as counterpoint to a failed romance; in the twelve-year-old Tape, a rape serves as a catalyst for a dramatically unsound essay on relativism.
6. Dramatically unsound, because nobody benefits and nobody loses anything from the exchange. Slickster’s jeopardy was to the trajectory of his rising star: not falling at the end of the play; not affected at all. Stoner’s jeopardy was to his feelings about everything: which were already hurt at the top, so he had nowhere to go. Smarty’s jeopardy… well, she had none, really. So, uh, yeah.
7. Least forgivably, this play introduces its entire raison d’etre as a climax sucker punch, thereby chickening out of the opportunity to really explore its theme…. ah, but the whole play’s only an hour and change, so that last ten minutes makes up almost a sixth of the running time. Short play, disposable pop psychopurpose, three actors, sex appeal: it sounds less Fringey than it does completely mainstream American regional theater-y.
Please, Mr Spindle, correct me on any of these points. All of them. I’d like to understand your definition of a good play, because you are a good critic. Certainly you have been a critic longer than I, and I hope I could benefit from a tutorial in what to appreciate in a piece of writing like Tape.
Bob Verini: “Without question the best production of this 2000 perennial I’ve ever seen.” Well, saying it’s the best production of a Stephen Belber play admittedly is not saying much, but really? You liked it? After this show my ass hurt almost as much as my feelings. (I never notice the chair when the play works.)
I found Elissa Weinzimmer’s direction not so much incompetent as pre-competent. I do not get the impression from this production that she has a firm grasp of story or text analysis: the best thing about the staging was Joe Sofranko’s fight, which was the only moment in which everybody seemed to know why they were onstage. This is why the show runs ten minutes longer than many other productions. Misters Rizzo and Karasev are competent actors of the more-earnest-than-thou school, but a director has to supply motivation and, above all, moment. There’s no suspense, portent, or illumination in this direction. There’s merely text, with occasional movement. This production has a single framed, directed beat (again, the one supplied by Mr Sofranko). The rest of the time the two men repeat their dialogue and indicate angst or smarm as if by rote. There’s no spark of in-the-moment life between these two actors or anywhere onstage until Ms Tyson comes in, and it is she who brings it and she who takes it with her when she goes.
This production’s pace meanders in lazy circles just like the very short text. When such is the case, and when actors look lost most of the time, and when half the stage pictures look like I’ve already seen them in the other half of the same show, well, I blame the director for not finding out what was wrong with the script and doing something inherently theatrical to fix it. Come to mention it:
The only thing separating this production from a low-budget movie – from, in fact, the Richard Linklater film version – is a camera. As a script, Tape contains no element that could not be executed as well or better in a naturalistic one-camera shoot. Nothing about this play needs a stage, and this version adds nothing specifically stage-esque. It’s a play for no better reason than format. So why, Mr Spindle, Mr Verini, are you celebrating this essentially alien product as among the best theater around? Anything that would work as well in another medium hardly seems worth the name.
About the Author: Jason Rohrer's education includes New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, the Nikitsky Gates Theater in Moscow, Russia, the National Academy for Theater and Film Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Village Oaks School in Stockton, California. He reviews film, theater, dance, and music for stageandcinema.com. He tweets as @RohrerWrites. He is less intelligent than he thinks, but then, he would have to be.