Over the past few seasons, he's grown a little with each role he's taken on, and in the past year-and-a-half, he's done some remarkable, harrowing things on stage: taking on two conflicting characters in one, simultaneously, in Titus Andronicus, and playing a gay (but not camp) Jesus in Corpus Christi. Now he has his best role yet, not as flamboyant as those others, but far more real, and demanding a greater emotional range.
In Stephen Belber's claustrophobic Tape, the latest show in Live Theatre Workshop's Etcetera series, Johnson plays Jon, a nattily dressed, upwardly mobile young filmmaker having a private 10-year reunion with his old high school buddy Vince (played by Bilal Mir). They meet in a cheap motel room in Lansing, Mich., ostensibly to see the film Jon has entered in a festival there. The real subject of their meeting is something else entirely.
The men are close, but jealously competitive. Jon seems by far the more stable and promising of the two, with grand ambitions of making a meaningful contribution to society through film, if only he can figure out how to do it without seeming like a pompous ass. Vince makes his contribution to society as a volunteer fireman while supporting himself dealing drugs to aging hippies. Jon thinks Vince has a barely suppressed violent streak. "You present a threatening appearance," he tells Vince after the latter has been left by his latest girlfriend. Says Vince, cluelessly, "We've been together three years. You'd think she'd be used to it by now."
Vince has a more basic problem, which Jon has reason to warn him against many times through the course of this play: "Don't be a dick." Yes, Vince is a dick, but we learn that he's not the only one in that seedy motel room.
As expertly guided by director Carolyn Marbry, Johnson's Jon and Mir's Vince gradually ratchet their quasi-macho old-pal sparring into a heated confrontation, in which Vince gets Jon to admit that he date-raped Vince's high-school sweetheart, Amy. Or did he? It's almost as if Vince is talking him into the idea. But he gets the confession on tape. And then Amy shows up.
Amy now works in the prosecutor's office, and as played by Mary Beth Canty, she assumes her most comfortable role, that of an attorney cross-examining hostile witnesses, in her confrontations with Jon and Vince. But who is manipulating whom? Where is the truth amid all the half-memories and half-denials? Was Amy the only victim 10 years ago? And who, exactly, are the victims now?
Three essentially powerless people snatch the advantage one from another through the course of this 75-minute play, and the tension comes not just from waiting to see who will do the right thing, but from not even being certain what the right thing is.
Johnson throws himself into this role, gnawing at his own soul without ever chewing the scenery. He begins amiably but a little smugly, and maintains an ever tighter rein on Jon even as Jon's own emotions hurtle out of control. Whatever Johnson may be doing in terms of acting craft is absolutely transparent; what we see is not performance, it's life.
Mir manages not to hide in Johnson's shadow. His character is, if anything, even more complicated than Johnson's, and he manages Vince's conflicting emotions and motivations quite smoothly. Mir makes it clear that we're seeing a character's authentic ambiguity, not an actor's lack of commitment. Canty, coming in late, has less to do as Amy; if she looks just a little young for the part compared to Johnson and Mir, she at least is as self-possessed as she needs to be, and even more fascinatingly inscrutable than the men.
Marbry and her actors set a perfect tone throughout the performance, initially light and playful yet with an undercurrent of jealousy and mistrust that gradually overwhelms everything.
It's too bad that Live Theatre Workshop relegates its most serious work to limited runs late at night; more people need to be able to see this production of Tape, and realize the breadth of this company's abilities.