For one moment, try to forget the horror. Try to forget the news reports, the weeping families, the thousands of people simply asking "why." Then, if you can, try to assume the role of that horror's perpetrators: What they went through, what they wanted, and what they got. In the wake of multiple, senseless deaths, aren't these concerns a part of the story, too?
They're the whole of the story of columbinus, the breathtaking "theatrical discussion" that just opened at New York Theatre Workshop. Though the show, which was conceived and directed by P.J. Paparelli and written by Paparelli and Stephen Karam, asks us to appraise evil, it doesn't ask us to sympathize with it. It does, however, request we remember that the line between the typical and the terrible is fainter than we might like to believe.
The show's intricate beauty arises from the intermingling of one specific tragedy and the generic, numbing normality of everyday life. Stretching across two stuffed acts, yet running scarcely over two hours, columbinus is a chilling reminder that what precedes historic events is just as important as the days we never forget.
One such day is April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold embarked on a shooting spree that turned Colorado's Columbine High School into a war zone: They killed 12 students and one teacher, injured two dozen others, and then killed themselves. Parents and teachers, gun laws, Internet web sites dedicated to information about creating bombs, even black trench coats (the shooters' attire of choice) were endlessly scrutinized and debated. Everyone wondered: Could this have been prevented, and could it be prevented from happening again?
Such questions are outside the scope of columbinus; it presents, as a program insert informs us, just the facts. At least in the second act: That's when the show reconstructs the last hours of Harris's and Klebold's lives, as reconstructed from interviews, recordings, and other records. The scenes range from the haunting (the boys' dark Internet conversations) to the harrowing (a recording of a 911 call made during the attacks), growing in intensity as Harris and Klebold inflict each new wave of terror on the students who tormented them, or who merely turned their backs.
The scenes are moving, but their slavish, documentary approach keeps you at too cool a distance for the full impact to be felt. Only when the boys' shots ring out, resounding through your chest not with volume but with hair-tingling depth (the superb sound design is Martin Desjardins), does the full force of what's happening sink in.
It's the fantastical first act in which the play's true suffocating power lies. It looks not at Harris and Klebold (though it's inspired by their lives), or even at Columbine itself, but at any high school on any day, with any group of teens who cope with each other by reducing their personalities to the barest essentials then magnifying those to dangerous proportions.
A young girl struggles to maintain her religious faith in the inhospitable high-school hallways. A popular, vapid blonde strives for perfection for her parents' sake. One young man is devoted to studying; another uses his clothes and frozen smile as a shield. There's a jock who'll go to any lengths to please his parents, a rebel who's determined she'll stand out from the crowd, and - oh yes - the trench-coated freak and loner always on the fringes. Who has the time or inclination to pay attention to them?
We gradually come to know their longings, their secret fears, and how their interactions form the fragile, complex web of adolescence that will be the foundation for their adult lives. As the freak and loner gain prominence, it becomes increasingly clear that they don't exist in a vacuum after all. They're affected by everyone around them: The driven jock resents their coasting, the rebel is too shy and insecure to date someone just like her, the bookworm is sympathetic enough to maintain a tangential friendship.
Karam and Paparelli develop these interrelationships so subtly and so cleanly that you scarcely recognize all the facets until they come into play. Only in the roughshod-rhythmic opening, in which the students prepare for the school day, does the writing border on the precious. Otherwise it's fresh and sharply paced throughout, and poetically matched by Paparelli's minimalist staging, Dan Covey's piercing lights, and J.J. Kaczynski's often whimsical projections.
The acting is considerably less comfortable, usually suggesting a high-school drama club on a bad day. Only Karl Miller and Will Rogers, as Harris and Klebold, ring with the proper outsider authenticity: They so underplay the boys' dark overtones and repress their oppressive anger that the series of seismic shifts that reconfigure their personalities as the play unfolds still take you aback.
The other six performers don't have roles with comparable baggage. But they all "play" insecurity, instead of living it as Miller and Rogers do. This makes their lengthier speeches less affecting than they ought to be, particularly in the first act, when the humanization of archetypes is most vital. Yet so well do they inhabit their roles physically, and with their otherwise indication-heavy performances, that it almost doesn't matter: They nonetheless create a vividly diverse group of personalities so volatile they'd be off-limits in most chemistry classes.
Guns and pipe bombs weren't to blame for the Columbine tragedy; it was, at least in part, the teenage social structure. This time it was the "freak" and the "loner," two unpopular guys with happy family lives. But it could just as easily have been a pregnant Daddy's Little Darling, a religious girl trapped in a crisis of faith, or either of the boys working themselves to death. It could have been anyone. Don't be surprised if columbinus's shattering window into the soul doesn't convince you, if only momentarily, that it could also easily have been you.