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Review: A reunion finds the perfect balance between tension and levity in ‘Tape’

Chaos Theatre’s production of Tape, now playing at Las Vegas Little Theatre’s Black Box, is totally watchable and, at moments, downright entertaining — as long as you don’t let the whole rape thing get you down.

Set in a shoddy motel room (designed by John Niño), Stephen Belber’s 1999 play tells a claustrophobic tale of a 10-year reunion between three characters: Vince (Geo Nikols), a down-and-out drug dealer who hasn’t moved on much from high school; Jon (Michael O’Neal), an aspiring film director; and Amy (Stephanie Roybal), a woman with whom both men share a questionable past.

Last seen as the lead in Table 8’s Hamlet, Nikols channels his rage and hones his sarcasm chops once again here, only this time while stripped down to boxers and a dingy tanktop. Vince has traveled to Michigan to support Jon’s new film in the Lansing Film Festival, but it’s his ulterior motives that drive this play: He wants his slick Hollywood pal to confess — on tape — to an act he’d committed years earlier, and he has a plan to make it happen.

As Amy, the ex-girlfriend-turned-assistant-district-attorney who may or may not have been date-raped, Stephanie Roybal is the play’s best surprise. Her calmness of expression can be just as easily construed as pain, amusement or total disinterest — all emotions that would make perfect sense for her character, who is being used as a pawn in a cock-fight between two guys still working out their adolescent angst.

Belber’s script has been described as “light” or even “fun” — and its humor rules this production — but it’s also neither of those things at the same time. Yes, it’s a story of old friendship and the unraveling of truth and perception, but its ambition comes in its willingness to address the troublesome topic of date rape. Doing so with too much humor would be crass; bogging the play down with melodrama would defeat its purpose. The three-member cast, for the most part, is able to dance the fine line, with Nikols’ sarcastic jabs balanced by O’Neal’s waning self-righteousness and Roybal’s tenacious subtlety. You don’t quite know what Amy’s thinking, or what she’ll do next.

Director Jason Niño guides the threesome into a realistic rhythm, especially in the play’s opening video short, that even allows you to suspend your disbelief long enough to accept one character holding a shiny white iPhone while another totes an antiquated cassette recorder. Then again, it’s probably a better choice than having them drop ’90s musical references and carry head-sized flip phones.

TAPE, Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m., through Dec. 23; Las Vegas Little Theatre Black Box, 3920 Schiff Drive,, $10-$15