The Library: Theater Review

Chloe Grace Moretz The Library - P 2014

Chloe Grace Moretz The Library - P 2014

The big-name director and lead actress escape without embarrassment, but they can't redeem this misfire.

Steven Soderbergh directs Chloe Moretz as a school-shooting survivor in Scott Z. Burns' drama about distortions of truth in the stunned aftermath of tragedy.

NEW YORK – As the audience enters before The Library begins, Chloe Grace Moretz lies immobile on a table downstage, wearing a hospital gown. But when this terrific young actress gets up and about in her first major theater role, she shows the same preternatural self-possession that has distinguished her screen work, even when forced to wade through puddles of speechy dialogue. Moretz is the chief saving grace of Scott Z. Burns' undynamic drama about the manipulation of comforting truths and the uses of vilification in the wake of a high school shooting, a play given the illusion of substance via Steven Soderbergh's spare, stylish direction.

What drew a director of Soderbergh's caliber to such inferior material in this rare stage foray is a mystery, unless he owed a favor to Burns, his screenwriter on three films: Side Effects, Contagion and The Informant! The developmental involvement of powerhouse producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall suggests that the project might have been conceived as a film, and in fact the whiff of a failed screenplay hangs in the air. Any theatricality it acquires is largely due to Soderbergh's controlled direction, Riccardo Hernandez's austere design and David Lander's violent lighting scheme.

School shootings from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Newtown are an ugly contemporary reality ripe for dramatic exploration, yielding arresting films like Gus Van Sant's Elephant, and plays like Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli's Columbinus. With its lack of psychological complexity masked in self-importance, The Library trivializes the disturbing phenomenon by making it the springboard rather than the subject, instead demonizing easy targets like the media and Christian hypocrisy. Watching poor Lili Taylor solemnly play a bereaved mother bestowing passive-aggressive forgiveness while tacitly passing a hangman's judgment is enough to make even hardened atheists pray for less heavy-handed theater.

The play has little interest in the incendiary debate about gun violence, focusing on more abstract tangential themes that never muster much urgency. Basically, it's a "did-she-or-didn't-she?" story about 16-year-old Caitlin Gabriel (Moretz), who survives a mass shooting by an unhinged former student at her school, sustaining non-fatal injuries. Her minimal prior acquaintance with the killer comes under intense scrutiny in the investigation and media circus that follow. But the real point of dramatic contention is the allegation by Ryan Mayes (Daryl Sabara), a Christian youth group member present during the shooting, that Caitlin directed the perpetrator to the A/V closet where a half-dozen students in the library were hiding.

Burns' aim is to consider responses to calamity, and the alternate narratives that can emerge under the sometimes-misguided banner of healing. The dominant voice in all this becomes Dawn Sheridan (Taylor), whose daughter, Joy, led the trapped students in prayer before joining the list of victims.

Despite their marital problems, Caitlin's distressed parents (Jennifer Westfeldt and Michael O’Keefe) attempt to stick together and shield their daughter as she recovers from multiple surgeries. But hostility from the community and beyond steadily grows as authorities all the way up to the vice president accept Ryan's version of what happened as fact. The local priest and the government representative handling compensation distribution (both played by Ben Livingston), the detective heading the investigation (Tamara Tunie), and even Caitlin's folks to some degree pressure her to rescind her statement as terms like False Memory Syndrome start bouncing around.

It seems unlikely that Burns intended to inject a satirical edge, but a hint of dark humor creeps into Dawn's sanctimonious sense of purpose as she lands a book deal, serves as consultant on a developing film project and organizes candlelight vigils and memorial concerts while setting up a foundation in Joy's name. More often, however, the dialogue veers toward trite melodrama. "A woman who has lost her husband is called a widow," says Dawn to her publisher. "But, what do we call a parent who loses a child? There isn't even a word for that." "It's as though the language itself can't even bear the thought," he replies.

While Westfeldt and Tunie both dignify their scenes with more conviction than they merit, the main gravitas comes from Moretz. With intelligence and restraint, she conveys the anger, confusion and self-doubt, the secretiveness and raw vulnerability of adolescence throughout an ordeal in which Caitlin is largely alone. Soderbergh also does what he can to counter the banal writing, with a tightly directed production that maintains a tone of clinical chilliness.

But the wobbly drama is finally undermined by its facile resolution. As this unfolds, nobody so much as raises an eyebrow to ask why it took cops what seems like a year to get around to listening to Ryan's 911 call during the shooting. Conclusive details gleaned from that evidence allow for the entire tragedy to be replayed, narrated by the ensemble in a fugue-like recital, with each death echoed in a blinding flash of red light. The effect is striking, if a long way from subtle, which is to be expected from a play that hits every obvious note and then some.

Venue: The Public Theater, New York (runs through April 27)

Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Livingston, Michael O’Keefe, Daryl Sabara, Lili Taylor, David L. Townsend, Tamara Tunie, Jennifer Westfeldt

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Playwright: Scott Z. Burns

Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez

Costume designer: Gabriel Berry

Lighting designer: David Lander

Sound designers: Darron L. West, M. Florian Staab

Presented by the Public Theater