I would like to say that I liked The Library, a new play at the Public Theatre. But it’s really not the type of play anyone can “like.” After all, it’s about the victimization of a victim in a mass shooting at a high school — the type of tragic event that continues to repulse us. This play is not about the killer or his family. Instead it focuses on the experiences of one of the victims who is accused of helping the killer find her classmates that were hiding.
This play has gotten a lot of attention because a well known Hollywood screenwriter, Scott Z Burns, and even more well known Hollywood director, Steven Soderbergh are collaborating on this production — not the Public’s usual pool of artists. On the surface, Mr. Burns’ script bears the markings of a TV movie: Grief stricken parents caught in the eye of the media storm that surrounds these all too frequent events; a teenager caught in seemingly innocent small lies that come so naturally to young people trying to create their identity; an investigation where the facts and testimony do not always match each other. Indeed, Mr. Burns script might have been the basis for a sensation-laden movie.
But that is not what the audience experiences at The Public. The text is actually fairly skeletal with just the sketchiest details of the actual events as seen from the perspective of only two witnesses. Instead, we watch as the support systems for the young girl accused of being an accessory slowly disintegrate until she is virtually isolated in a world that wants her to accept responsibility so others can make some sense of what happened, whether it’s true or not.
What really distinguishes this production from an episode of Law and Order is Mr. Soderbergh’s stylization of the production in collaboration with his designers. The set is a sterile collection of metal tables and chairs, set up like the library where the shootings took place. The lighting of each scene is totally unnatural, sometimes leaving the speaking characters in silhouette against a brightly lit backdrop. Other times characters are lit with diagonal rays of light that cast ominous shadows. Each distinctive lighting pattern creates an attitude toward the scene for the audience that both objectifies and, at the same time, colors (literally and figuratively) the audience’s processing of the information in the scene. The result is a complex challenge for the audience, one that somewhat replicates the combination of mystification and outrage that emerges from these mass murders.
The cast is quite good. Chloe Grace Moritz portrays the victim accused of compliance with hurt and defiance — she is a victim who becomes a victim of the circumstances. For me, the only weak link in the cast was Michael O’Keefe as the faithful father. He never seemed to be comfortable with his faithfulness, not because the script suggested that uncomfortable state, but more as an actor not believing in his character. One piece of casting almost breaks the carefully wrought atmosphere that Mr. Soderbergh and company create: Tamara Tunie as the investigating detective. Ms. Tunie is perfect in the role, but even though she has a long list of diverse acting credits, I could not disassociate her voice in this play from the sound of the prosecutor she played in Law and Order: SVU and that association kept breaking the evocative atmospheres that Mr. Soderbergh so adeptly created. But even that odd association caused me to struggle with the way the media, our public officials, and each individual processes these mass murders and the way we view the victims.
This play is not for everyone. It’s 90 uncomfortable minutes. The play opens tonight (April 15) and I suspect the mainstream critical response will not be as accepting as I am. But The Library does present some challenging and disturbing issues that surround these horrific events that seem to have become a regular part of our culture.