If you want a vivid example of how a director can shape (or reshape) a play, compare the author’s description of the set for The Library with what actually appears on the Public Theater’s Newman stage. In his script, Scott Z. Burns details the scene of a Columbine-like massacre with (among other naturalistic indicators) backpacks, bookshelves, books scattered everywhere, a charred sofa, fallen chairs, and bloodstains on the carpet. But what the director Steven Soderbergh (working with the designer Riccardo Hernandez) gives us instead is the antiseptic inside of a white lacquer box. It looks like the meditation room of a moon colony, with almost no props, let alone those bloodstains. Which is apt, I suppose; The Library is the chicest high-school mass-murder drama yet.
Soderbergh has directed for the theater before, but is obviously best known for his films, and his work here demonstrates not just the lordly effect any director can have on a stage work but the heightened effect of a director descending from Mt. Hollywood. (Burns, too, is primarily a screen guy, with scripts for Side Effects and Contagion to his credit.) As written, the play is already somewhat cool, mostly skipping past the cause of the massacre on its way to dissecting the practical after-effects. In particular, it focuses on the family of a girl named Caitlin Gabriel, who though shot at close range and gravely injured was put back together at the hospital and lived. But when another student identifies her as the person who told the murderer where six of the victims were hiding, her status as a brave survivor is revoked, along with all sympathy and hopes of compensation. Meanwhile, a girl named Joy Sheridan, who did die, becomes a kind of Fox News saint, having led the terrified students in prayers as the awful events unfolded.
Burns frames the play as a police procedural with elements of social and family drama mixed in. (The marriage of Caitlin’s parents was already on the rocks.) As long as it sticks to these elements the script is engaging and credible, or credible at one remove: TV credible. (You will not be unfamiliar with the smooth aggression of the police investigator or the obvious smarm of the publisher selling Joy’s mother on a book-and-movie deal.) But when Burns gasses up the larger themes that are clearly his interest here — faith vs. science, accommodation vs. integrity — he gets self-indulgent in a way even TV doesn’t countenance anymore. He must think it’s a “theatrical” idea to include testimony from the books the students were reading in the library that day, and so we get recitations from Cold Mountain, an astronomy text, and Winesburg, Ohio. In the script, he even calls for these books (and many others) to be individually illuminated in spotlights where they fell.
Soderbergh ignores that precious instruction; still, he hammers the general idea of abstraction until the production goes numb. Characters climb on tables to declaim; Caitlin’s three emergency surgeries are rendered entirely with voice-overs while she lies motionless on an otherwise empty stage. It’s all very static and beautiful, especially David Lander’s dim, saturated lighting, which emphasizes the impersonality of the narrative by barely letting us see anyone’s face. The result, as Soderbergh must have intended, is like a wet blanket thrown over a fire, dousing emotion in favor of thought. It’s an effect intensified by the small-bore — indeed movielike — underplaying of the cast. You can sense them doing excellent work, especially the enchanting Chloë Grace Moretz as Caitlin, and Jennifer Westfeldt and Michael O’Keefe as her parents. But most of that work seems to vaporize in the intellectual space between them and us, which is a creepy problem in a play about mass murder. It is a play, after all, not a film; perhaps someone should have read the part of that astronomy text explaining that the world — including the world of the stage — is not flat.
The Library is at the Public Theater through April 27.