The three characters in “Tape,” now playing at the Vineyard Playhouse, convene in a room in a Michigan Motel 6 and become a combustible combination.
Ten years out of a Lansing, Michigan high school, two former best friends, confirmed slacker Vincent (Michael Urie), a drug dealer; and clean-cut Jon (Ryan Spahn), an emerging filmmaker, face off. Jon has come back home to participate in the local film festival where his film is being featured. Vince, a taunting manipulator who hovers on the rim of menacing, is determined to extract penance from Jon, whom he accuses of date-raping Amy (Victoria Campbell), once Vince’s high school girlfriend.
“It’s a play about people who haven’t seen each other for 10 years, and the things that happened all those years ago have a great effect,” explains Claudia Weill, the play’s director. “It’s the stuff that happens in high school that can affect you the rest of your lives. It’s hard to address those issues, and this play puts you right in the middle. It takes young people from where they are and gives them a glimpse of themselves in the future.”
All of which is a lofty way of saying there is no expiration date on the responsibility we have for our actions.
The in-your-face profanities Vince and Jon exchange begin as glib sparring — our contemporary vernacular — but then escalate. We learn that Vince’s wife has left him because he has “unresolved issues and violent tendencies.” The determinedly aimless Vince, who exists somewhere under his many layers of camouflage, gives a bravado shrug and says, “I’ll find someone else who appreciates my dark side.”
Jon, who seems to use erudite definitions as protection, explains his work by saying, “I’m telling stories that attempt to resonate with where this society is going.” He tries to get his former friend to aspire toward a more constructive life, all of which just intensifies Vince’s fast-paced goading.
For all Jon’s moral high ground and ambition, it is he that forced himself on the girl Vince loved in high school. Vince is jealous, incensed, and unrelenting, and when things between the two finally come to a head, he triumphantly flaunts a taped recording he’s made of their recently shouted exchange.
And then we meet Amy, an assistant district attorney who thinks she’s coming to meet Vince for a reunion dinner. But Amy, played by Ms. Campbell, a longtime Playhouse favorite, has both her own perspective and her own agenda. She gets the final say.
Written in 1999 by Stephen Belber, “Tape” was adapted into a 2001 movie starring Ethen Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Robert Sean Leonard. But at the Vineyard Playhouse, it is the actors, not the script, that sustain the intensity and do the work in the hour-long, no-intermission production.
A successful television and stage actor, Mr. Urie bears no resemblance to Marc St. James, the fey and duplicitous assistant he played on the former hit television show, “Ugly Betty.” As the volatile Vince, he generates a steadily increasing hum of violent potential, and becomes the lynchpin of the action.
Mr. Spahn, an award-winning actor who has appeared in the New York production of “Angels in America,” and “The Tempermentalists,” regularly appears in films and on television. He co-wrote the new play “He’s Way More Famous Than You” with Halley Feiffer. As Jon, he is required to be reactive, which he does convincingly.
As skilled as the actors are, as accomplished and gifted as Ms. Weill, the award-winning stage and film director, is (her documentary “The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir” was nominated for an Academy Award, she directed episodes of television’s “Thirty Something,” “My So-Called Life,” Chicago Hope,” and the West Coast production of “Doubt”), and as intensely the pacing is maintained, the characters are not particularly sympathetic. Interest is sustained. We can relate. But it remains difficult to fully invest in them, or in the issues they’ve been carrying around since high school.
“Tape,” at The Vineyard Playhouse, 7 pm Wednesday, June 15; 8 pm Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. 4 pm matinee June 18. Runs through June 18, Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. $35; $30 for seniors and juniors. 508-696-6300 ext. 21, or at vineyardplayhouse.org. Adult themes.