STAGE TO SCREEN: Tape Recordings

STAGE TO SCREEN: Tape Recordings The Laramie Project took up a fair amount of Stephen Belber’s time in 1999 and 2000. As one of the principal writers, Belber made five trips to Laramie, Wyoming, where he interviewed scores of people, and he subsequently played several of these people in the off-Broadway production. His “Rashomon”-like experiences interviewing so many different people — and getting so many different accounts of the same “truth” — served as a direct link to his three-character drama, Tape.

The Laramie Project took up a fair amount of Stephen Belber’s time in 1999 and 2000. As one of the principal writers, Belber made five trips to Laramie, Wyoming, where he interviewed scores of people, and he subsequently played several of these people in the off-Broadway production. His “Rashomon”-like experiences interviewing so many different people — and getting so many different accounts of the same “truth” — served as a direct link to his three-character drama, Tape.

“I think Tape sprang from those two years in a lot of ways,” Belber says of both his 2000 play and the critically-acclaimed film adaptation, which is currently opening in platform release. “We base so much of our lives on our perceptions, and when you’re confronted with a varying perception of that reality, you have to re-evaluate everything.” Despite his interest, it took a direct request to get Tape rolling at first. “Two actor friends approached me and asked me to write something they could sink their teeth into,”Belber says. “ ‘Something kind of Sam Shepard-y,’ they said.” Tape, which unfolds in real time in a dingy hotel room, largely revolves around two old friends, one of whom tricks the other into admitting — on tape — to a sexual assault committed 10 years earlier. The plot thickens when Amy, the alleged victim, arrives at the room and throws both characters’ memories into question.

Tape debuted downtown at the Access Theatre in 1999, and Broadway producer Bob Cole optioned the piece. (It would also appear at the following year’s Humana Festival.) At the time, Ethan Hawke was looking to pair another one-act with a revival of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story on Broadway, and he participated in a reading of Tape. “It ended up being shot down by Edward Albee,” Belber says, “but Ethan held onto it.”

Enter InDigEnt (Independent Digital Entertainment), an initiative launched in 2000 by the Independent Film Channel. InDigEnt sponsored the filming of five features shot on digital film, including Hawke’s directorial debut, “Chelsea Walls.” Hawke suggested “Tape,” offered to star in it and suggested Richard Linklater as a director. Hawke’s wife, Uma Thurman, promptly joined on, as did his friend (and “Dead Poets Society” costar) Robert Sean Leonard. (Thurman and Leonard also appear in “Chelsea Walls.”)

The use of digital cameras allows for a fast and cheap shooting schedule: After two weeks of rehearsal, Linklater, who operated one of the two cameras himself, shot “Tape” in just six days. But unlike shooting with celluloid, which is extremely expensive, using a digital format can also result in an incredible amount of footage to choose from. “I heard Richard say it was the hardest movie he ever had to edit,” Belber says. Belber says he’s glad he didn’t have to “open up” the play with scenes outside the hotel room. “Richard really wanted to keep the landscape within the hotel room,” he says, “and he also made a point of never returning to the same shot at any point. It’s like you’re chasing the characters.” A handful of movies have attempted to confine the entire story within one room in real time, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope.” But as Belber points out, “even ‘Rope’ opens with that exterior outside the building. Richard takes pride in not succumbing to that.”

Belber says he’s looking forward to juggling film and theater projects. He’s working on a screenplay, writing a new play and reworking an older play called Drifting Elegant for The Directors Company. And Tape has come full circle: He has been writing some new monologues and new material for the play, which is scheduled to reopen in January at the Jose Quintero Theater — starring the two actors who approached Belber in the first place. Belber says he regretted moving on without these actors for the movie version, “but if there’s any justice, the people funding this production are people I met through making this movie.”

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Speaking of “The Laramie Project,” the star-studded film version will unspool at next year’s Sundance Film Festival before airing on HBO. Belber and the rest of the original cast all have small parts, alongside such heavy hitters as Steve Buscemi and Laura Linney.

Meanwhile, as The New York Times unveiled recently, “Angels in America” is finally scheduled to go before cameras. Mike Nichols will reportedly shoot the HBO film over the first several months of 2002. Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson appear to be locked in (as Roy Cohn, Hannah Pitt and the Angel, respectively), and among Nichols’ wish list are The Full Monty’s Patrick Wilson to play Joe Pitt and Jeffrey Wright to repeat his Tony-winning role as Belize. If you ask me, Robert Downey, Jr. would be perfect as Louis, and Marcia Gay Harden is a much bigger name now than when she originally played Harper. But who could play Prior? Is Stephen Spinella a big enough draw? If not, I don’t envy whoever tries to fill those shoes.

Not to be undone, the little show that could — Pam Gien’s one-woman “Under the Syringa Tree” — has been filmed for cable. The South African drama would presumably air on an as-yet-undetermined channel after Gien opens the play in London’s Royal National Theatre in February.

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Cutting-Room Floor: Pirandello fans may want to head to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. As part of its two-week tribute to the Taviani brothers, who directed such modern classics as “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” MoMA will air both “Kaos” and “Tu Ridi” on Nov. 27. Both are adapted from Pirandello’s madness- and suicide-drenched “Short Stories for a Year,” and admission to the museum gets you admission to either or both. ...
Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues may have opened to mixed reviews at the Roundabout, but the movie version is picking up steam. “Lantana” cleaned up last week at the Australian Film Institute Awards, including a screenplay nod for Bovell. Audiences can decide between the play and the film (or see both, like I plan to) on Dec. 14, when “Lantana” opens in New York and Los Angeles. ...
It looks like “Chicago” will start filming next month for a Christmas 2002 release. With Roxie, Velma, Billy, Mama and Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski) squared away, who’s playing Amos? ...
“Pinero” has pushed back its qualifying Oscar run from Dec. 5 to Dec. 14. In the meanwhile, two current New York stage inhabitants — Mary Testa (42nd Street) and Frederick Weller (The Shape of Things) — can be seen in “The Business of Strangers,” which opens in limited release on Dec. 7. The reference to Neil LaBute’s Shape of Things is apparently apt: The Stockard Channing-Julia Stiles drama has been touted as a feminist response to LaBute’s “In the Company of Men.”

Your Thoughts: Has anyone seen “Tape” yet? What did you think? And give me what you think would be the ultimate “Angels in America” cast.

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.