The title of Scott Z. Burns‘s first play is “The Library,” but its poster eschews books in favor of a single image: a gun on a plain white background. On closer look, however, there is a book on this poster. The spine of the Holy Bible runs along the length of that firearm.
Surprisingly, “The Library,” which opened Tuesday under the direction of Steven Soderbergh at the Public Theater, doesn’t have a lot to say about America’s gun laws – or lack of them. Burns, screenwriter for Soderbergh’s “Side Effects” and “Contagion,” wisely focuses his drama instead on telling a story of what happens to a 16-year-old student (Chloe Grace Moretz) when she’s injured in a high school melee, and upon recovery discovers that she has been accused of telling the killer where most of the other students are hiding.
Moretz’s Caitlin Gabriel is the bad girl in this scenario carried forth on nonstop cable news, and the actress’s fine performance, a stage debut, helps to keep us intrigued, if not always sympathetic. Emerging as the media saint is another girl, whom we never meet; it’s reported that she led the students in prayer just before many of them were murdered. Adding to the intrigue is the good girl’s mother, played with gifted understatement by Lili Taylor. Burns gives Taylor plenty to work with, but she keeps it simple. Her calm amid the various news-cycle storms is inspiring, at first. Then her quiet forgiveness of Caitlin begins to curdle as religion blurs the parameters of this senseless tragedy.
Soderbergh directs what could be described as an ultra-minimalist production. Riccardo Hernandez’s box set and David Lander’s lighting are a meeting of Donald Judd and Mark Rothko. Inside the ever-changing bright lights of that box are the tables and chairs from the scene of the crime, which doubles for hospital rooms, police offices, homes. Whenever anyone mentions one of the killer’s many gunshots, the box turns red for a couple of seconds. There’s also the slight over-amplification of Darron L. West and M. Florian Staab’s sound design, an effect that keeps the actors about an inch removed from their own voices. Soderbergh’s approach is minimal in a very flashy way.
In contrast, he directs his actors as if the camera’s eye has them caught in close-up for the play’s entire 100 minutes. In addition to Moretz and Taylor, Michael O’Keefe gives a subtly nuanced performance as Caitlin’s father, a man divided over how to take care of his daughter and his income. Only Jennifer Westfeldt reaches for effects to turn in a mawkish portrayal of his estranged wife.
The power of “The Library” is such that, once the police report is issued, Burns tidies up his drama too quickly. Taylor’s mother alone deserves at least another scene. What this woman is up to may be worth a whole other act.