WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — Responsibility, says 30-something playwright Stephen Belber, doesn't come easily to his peers. "It's vogue to be a slacker in this generation," the New York-based writer says.
"Everything is not black and white. But how do we feel when we have to actually own up to who we are or what we've done?" he asks, echoing a theme that runs through all his work.
That theme is the core question in his three-person, one-act play "Tape," currently enjoying a revival at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood, Calif., through May 11.
The show is a "Rashomon"-like investigation by two men and a woman into a sexual encounter that took place a decade before their present-day meeting in a Michigan hotel room.
They offer varying accounts of the event, each character taking a different degree of responsibility for his or her actions.
"When I was writing the play, I was thinking of [then-President Clinton] trying to apologize for slavery," Mr. Belber says. "I remember thinking at the time: 'If you can't do it right, then don't do it at all.' "
When the 65-minute show first opened in New York in 1999, it was a quick success, leading The Wall Street Journal to write: " 'Tape' reminds us why we go to the theater."
The play was quickly picked up by a movie producer and made into a low-budget independent film starring Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke, and Robert Sean Leonard. The Lions Gate production headlined the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in 2000.
Now the play is being revived in limited engagements with the original cast, in part, Belber says, because the themes of individual and group responsibility are so timely after the events of Sept. 11.
The playwright says he developed a deeper appreciation for the relationship between a single member of society and the community at large after working on "The Laramie Project," a play about the murder of homosexual teenager Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo. Belber was co-writer of "The Laramie Project" prior to penning "Tape."
To develop "Laramie," the writers spent months interviewing local residents.
"What we saw and found was that people wanted to distance themselves from the crime, from any responsibility," he says. "There's a system in place where, once we get to a certain place, we don't want to look back."
Belber says he developed a new appreciation for both the strengths and weaknesses of what he calls the American character in the wake of Sept. 11. He spent time in Europe with his wife, who is French, and found that he saw American behavior in a new light.
"There is something about the force of American determination that is a great strength," the writer says. "But it can also turn on us and become our greatest weakness."
Belber says his plays often feature a lead male character who is full of that quintessential American drive, but is confused by things he doesn't understand.
In the case of "Tape," the confusion is compounded by the memories of the characters colliding with one another.
"People tend to use memory to create their persona or sense of identity," he says. "[But] what happens when that rug gets pulled out, and you are forced to revisit old events and realize that you may not be who you thought you were?"