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Sniper

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

How can sane, law-abiding people ever hope to understand the genesis of acts of unspeakable cruelty? If it's not always safe to assume that violent acts are committed for no reason, the roots of evil or anger are themselves not always easily determined. For a dramatic examination of such issues to be cathartic - or even simply effective - the playwright doesn't need to have answers, but should be able to vivify the search for them.

That's the fatal flaw in Bonnie Culver's well-meaning but uneven play Sniper, which just opened at Center Stage. The play is based on the true story of a teenage gunman named Anthony Barbaro, who killed eight people in an otherwise sleepy town in upstate New York in the 1970s, but is so drenched with generalities that little about it seems believable, often feeling more like an outline than an actual play.

Of course the young killer - here named Anthony Vaccaro, and played by John O'Brien - is at the center of the story, and while waiting for trial and judgment for the multiple murders he's committed, he conjures up the memories of those who have influenced his life. These include his father John (Vincent Sagona) and mother Louise (Kathy McCafferty), their genial Catholic priest (Tony Neil), Anthony's longtime friend and acquaintance Tom Davis (Zack Griffiths), and the girl in whom he harbors a burgeoning romantic and spiritual interest (named Susan James and played by Nicole Raphael).

Culver intends these characters to illuminate different facets of Anthony's personality and suggest possible causes for his violent outburst, but there are few original ideas to be found. Anthony longs for Tom's looks, talent, and bright future, though Tom harbors a dark secret that mars his outward perfection; Anthony's father is a blue-collar worker with innate dislike for most of Anthony's more cerebral proclivities, and can hardly stand his overbearing, devoutly Catholic wife; Anthony's coarse, uneducated older brother dies in Vietnam and is treat as a hero; and so on.

Only a few scenes ring with any real specificity, and they're mostly between Anthony and Susan, when Raphael and O'Brien are most able to capture their characters' youthful innocence and still-developing worldviews. Culver ends their relationship in a way that's forced and corny in its abruptness, but still has a true-to-life feeling missing in most of the other confrontations she's scripted. The climactic scene in which Anthony confronts the priest about the Church's wavering doctrine is so overwritten and poorly rooted in the narrative, it might as well be from a different play.

Neil's quiet, smiling understatement is a welcome interpretation of such overwrought writing, but O'Brien emotionlessly shouts his way through the scene, sabotaging Neil's fine, subtle character work. This is far and away O'Brien's weakest moment; he's better when dealing with events more obliquely, and in the heavily, darkly psychological first and final scenes set almost entirely in Anthony's head. His detached, monotonic descriptions of his crimes is unsettling and memorable; most of his direct work with other actors is better left forgotten.

McCafferty has her moments, particularly when she must deal with her elder son's death, and Griffiths and Erik Kever Ryle, who plays various authority figures, also come across well. But Sterling Coyne's rotund, jovial police chief is one-note, and Sagona overplays John's anti-intellectualism almost to the point of parody. However, as Culver's writing barely details a real character for John, Sagona's failure at bringing him to life isn't surprising.

Neither, ultimately, is the failure of Adam Hill's direction to reconcile the stark differences between the play's realistic and more conceptual scenes. Bok-yung Youn's set design - based on a series of cubes of varying sizes and colors - helps a bit, but looks too theatrical for the serious scenes and not theatrical enough to lend the play much stylistic bite. Better is Erik DeArmon's jolting sound design, which contributes a creepiness and intensity not found elsewhere in the production.

What is present is the germ of a good idea that will undoubtedly seem increasingly relevant as long as apparently senseless acts of violence are at the forefront of our national consciousness. (And in the post-September 11 world, how often is that not the case?) But a show telling a story like this needs fresh perspectives to truly seem relevant, and a few moments of isolated insight aside, that's the mark that Sniper all too frequently misses.

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Sniper
Through February 12
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Center Stage, 48 West 21st Street, 4th Floor
Schedule and Tickets: 212-352-3101