A skilled director can work magic, which is what Steven Soderbergh has done with “The Library,” a thin play penned by Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns (“Side Effects,” “Contagion,” “The Informant!”) about the aftermath of a high school shooting. The imposing abstract design and expressionistic staging suggest that the play’s themes will have depth and resonance. But this promise of A Very Important Play fades once it’s clear that the stagecraft isn’t in service of a reflective drama, just a narrow account of the blame game directed at a 16-year-old (superbly played by Chloe Grace Moretz) accused of directing the murderer to his victims.
The prodigiously talented Moretz (the vengeful heroine of the made-over “Carrie”) commands the stage as Caitlin Gabriel, a sophomore at the ironically named Golden Valley High School, who caught a shotgun blast when a former student went ballistic and mowed down more than a dozen kids who were studying in the library. Jennifer Westfeldt (writer-director-star of indie “Friends With Kids”) is the other cast standout as Caitlin’s distraught mother, torn between mother-love and the sneaking suspicion that her daughter might, indeed, have betrayed her schoolmates.
Caitlin is the bulls-eye focus of the play, which the scribe has constructed in fragmented scenes that track her thoughts as well as her actual whereabouts. Color-coded by lighting designer David Lander (screaming red is the color he splashes on the back wall whenever the attack is referenced), the stage is a bare and sterile landscape in Riccardo Hernandez’s austere design. Body-ready gurneys are lined up everywhere, but all attention is riveted on the gurney where Caitlin is lying near death in the operating room where surgeons are frantically trying to piece her together again.
In Moretz’s poised perf, Caitlin is a sensible girl, not a narcissist, a bully or a bitch. The realization that no one, not even her parents, believes in her innocence comes to her gradually, and the young thesp makes that slow-dawning insight harrowing to watch.
For quite different reasons, Lili Taylor’s performance as Dawn Sheridan, the mother of one of the dead students and Caitlin’s chief accuser, is also painful to watch. Taylor does her best, but the character is a gargoyle. A bible-thumping religious fanatic who is also a canny opportunist, Dawn uses one student’s version of events to fabricate a money-making myth in which her brave daughter was shot while leading the trapped students in prayer, and while cowardly Caitlin was pointing the shooter to his targets.
“I want to defend my daughter, keep her meaning alive,” is her shameless sales pitch to a potential publisher interested in buying her grief journal.
Burns has done his play a disservice by narrowing the focus to a “she said/she said” smackdown between this manipulative monster who drew 3,000 people to the vigil she organized for her martyred daughter, and poor, defenseless Caitlin, who has been undergoing a series of surgeries while trying to escape the howling mob of public outrage.
As strident and overbearing as it plays, this scenario would still make an impact as a single plot thread in a larger dramatic context. But the scribe seems unable to get beyond the cries for Caitlin’s blood. Little is said about the actual killer — not his history, his home life, his friends, his motives, his school records, or his psychological triggers. Not even his music playlists. Just broad hints that the kid was a creep.
More regrettably, even less is said about school massacres as a modern day phenomenon. With everyone lighting candles, singing hymns and writing bad poetry, no one in this brain-dead town seems remotely interested in anything about the deaths of their children, except which one of two terrified girls instinctively tried to survive an incomprehensible horror.