Stephen Belber’s dark 1999 drama “Tape,” outstandingly produced by Playground Theatre at the Mathile Theatre, pulls no punches in its brutally honest examination of memory, betrayal, infatuation, deception, vindictiveness, jealousy, and sexual assault encompassing the lives of three high school friends. Seeking to uncover truths with jaw-dropping psychological gamesmanship, Belber creates a blistering portrait of humanity that’s messy, nasty and flawed. Through anger and pain, shock and shame, this fascinating character study, set inside a Michigan motel in real time thereby heightening its conversational allure and emotional stakes, reiterates how impossible it is to move forward if you haven’t made peace with the past.
Directed with gripping tension by Playground co-founder Jenna Valyn, this intimate outing smoothly evolves from the casual small talk of its more humorous opening moments to a pulse-pounding climax of destructive volatility. Playground co-founder Christopher Hahn fills his astute portrayal of brutish Vince, a volunteer firefighter and dope dealer still searching for his true calling, with sharp sarcasm and passionate unpredictability. In addition to embracing Vince’s man-child essence to the hilt (notice how he makes flushing drugs down the toilet seem utterly devastating), he winningly conveys Vince’s faux nobility when attempting to be the hero of this tale. The dynamically expressive A.J. Breslin shines as Jon, a budding filmmaker whose decision to be “a little rough” one evening 10 years ago comes back to haunt him. Masterfully composed in his early scenes, Breslin eventually erupts with fierce ferocity during Vince and Jon’s pivotal argument involving a taped confession of rape. Due to his proficiency of duality, I absolutely believed the seemingly reserved Jon was capable of producing “violent tendencies” just as much as bad-boy Vince. The magnetic, quietly commanding Kelsie Slaugh delivers a breakthrough performance as the highly perceptive Amy, a local assistant district attorney and Vince’s bygone girlfriend who takes matters into her own professional hands as the horror of what happened (or didn’t happen) with Jon comes into focus. Cunningly and charmingly acknowledging Amy as the smartest and savviest adult in the room, Slaugh particularly mesmerizes in her cutthroat delivery of Amy’s incredibly stinging reprimand to Jon which internally beats him to a pulp. It is the defining moment of the play and rightfully so.
The Playground relishes in edgy, gritty plays addressing the harsh realities of life. “Tape,” bound to incite thought-provoking discussion, continues the organization’s impressive artistic track record while indicating a refreshing desire to broaden its base and brand as it opens its fourth season. Enter Room 32 if you dare.
“Tape” continues today at 2 and 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm inside the Mathile Theatre of the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton. The production is performed in 70 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $15-$20. For tickets, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit ticketcenterstage.com. For more information, visit theplaygroundtheatre.org. Patrons are advised the play contains adult language and situations. You can also follow Playground’s Spotify playlist at http://bit.ly/tape-soundtrack.