Rhoda Koenig
Wednesday 06 August 2003 00:00

American drama has long been a byword for raw emotion and engagement with social issues, but, to judge by such imports as Stephen Belber's Tape, it is in danger of becoming known for another American quality: materialism. The characteristic isn't evident in the setting or subject of the play - a tense meeting of three former friends in a Midwestern motel. But, in the wider sense, of inhumanity and sterility, Tape is as much a piece of material calculation as any machine-tooled sitcom. It is not the result of absorbing influences, but of scavenging.

Combine Sam Shepard's disaffected motel milieu with David Mamet's game-playing, male competitiveness, sudden anger, and mistrust of women. Add the self-pitying bewilderment of any number of "Ou sont les neiges de high school?" dramas, the predictable but unbelievable twists of a minor thriller, and a dash of "women's issues", and you would have something very like Tape. Jon, a film-maker who is in a Michigan city for the night, visits his old buddy Vince in the latter's motel room. An exchange of slick and inarticulate remarks gradually resolves into an elaborate ruse, as Vince leads Jon to confess to something he shouldn't have done on the night of their high-school graduation. The arrival of Amy, who was involved with both men, complicates matters. Though only 75 minutes long, Tape includes a crisis of conscience, two power shifts, and numerous contests of personality.

But despite all this emotional closet-clearing, I didn't care about any of the characters in Geoffrey Nauffts' production, mostly because I couldn't believe in them. Vince is that improbable cliché, the cuddly dope dealer. When Jon asks why a smart guy such as him, nearly 30, is dealing drugs, Vince replies, with adolescent logic, "Because I'm smart. If I wasn't smart, I would've gotten caught by now." Vince also cherishes adolescent ideals. His life is blighted, it seems, by losing the girl he loved as a teenager, and his banter with Jon covers a decade-old jealous hatred.

It would take a far greater actor than Dominic Fumusa to make me believe this nonsense, though he is a satisfactory Vince, full of edgy faux-bonhomie. Josh Stamberg's Jon is less convincing. Perhaps the audience didn't pick up the American rhythms, but for whatever reason, an awkward atmosphere hung over the evening as patrons who were clearly disposed to like the play remained silent at the jokes. Both men act with their hands, pointing, punching, and finger-waggling, though Stamberg is the worse offender, and his delivery of even such seemingly surefire lines as "I can't be a bigot - I'm Jewish" is flat. He also appears too blokish, despite his only-joking references to Vince as "swarthy," the old-fashioned US code word for Italians meaning "oversexed and stupid".

Alison West gives an efficient, career-girl performance as Amy, a role that demands nothing more. Not for the first time, one wonders why male playwrights think a declared sensitivity to women compensates for the lack of any evidence of it.

To 30 August (020-7478 0100)

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