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The Columbine Project

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Justin Mortelitti and Artie Ahr.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

A play about a high school presented as if it were a high school play might be a workable concept under some circumstances, but not when the subject is Columbine High School. The massacre that occurred on that Colorado campus on April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a shooting and bombing rampage that killed 12 students and one teacher, has forever branded that place as both unfortunately special and irredeemably adult. And neither quality is especially evinced by the well-intentioned but destructively ordinary new treatment of it, The Columbine Project.

Newly opened at the Actors' Temple Theatre following a sold-out Hollywood run earlier this year, this show by Paul Anthony Storiale (who also directed) never rises to the level of either the tragedy itself or the documentary-theatre genre-setter its title echoes, The Laramie Project. Like that show, this one has been assembled from interviews and transcripts and conducts itself with the carriage and responsibility of reality. But because it barely dramatizes the deepest tensions at the heart of the story, it almost always feels false rather than true.

This is at least partially because the play relies on invented scenes, giving you behind-the-scenes looks at Eric (Artie Ahr) and Dylan (Justin Mortelliti) in the weeks preceding the attacks, that are more button-pushing than boundary-breaking. Encounters between Eric and his parents (Kelli Joan Barnett and Kelly McCracken) are designed to outline in neon their obliviousness to the weapons and dangerous video games passing just below their noses. Eric and Dylan's unsteady relationships with friends such as Brooks Brown (Evan Enslow) and girls like "Jesus Freak" Rachel Scott (Rya Meyers) are structured to give the duo instant outsider street cred. And of course, the white-baseball-cap-wearing jocks who forever spat insults at them and their unpopular classmates get their smarmy say as well.

But instead of probing the boys' mounting pathology, this only detracts from Eric and Dylan's out-of-the-ordinary reactions to annoying - and everlasting - high school rites of passage nearly everyone endures. Storiale doesn't help you comprehend what made them monsters by portraying their world as one that sounds as if it were composed of rejected scripts from Degrassi High, or by imagining their psyches in spotlit confessionals that, even when lifted from the boys' real writings, play as half-hearted attempts at profundity. ("People are alike, I am different," Dylan moans at one point.) The more Storiale tries to particularize the two, the more generic they become. And instituting as a narrator a gay guitarist named Chris (Bradley Michaels) who's undergoing a similarly torturous journey to adulthood reeks of desperation.

It's only when facts take control that the show develops the dangerous energy it needs throughout. Recordings of real 911 calls from the shooting, lengthy scenes drawn from accounts from inside the library (where most of the killings took place), and Eric and Dylan recording their chilling video suicide note all jolt you to attention by reminding you that these things actually happened. A court appearance in which Brooks testifies to his own long-questioned innocence, even indicts the Columbine Police Department so provocatively that that the handling (or mishandling) of Harris and Klebold could well merit a play all its own. And dialogue about the dates of Hitler's and Klebold's birthdays successfully underscores the strange synchronicity of horror.

The rest of the time, Storiale's lumbering direction and Josh Iacovelli's too-spare "scenic adaptation" make the evening seem as underrehearsed and underconceived as it does underenergized. For the most part, the actors aren't much better. Meyers conveys a captivating sense of innocence stifled, and Marquerite Wiseman has an understated and wrenching monologue as the mother of a murdered black boy. But everyone else, even Ahr and Mortelliti, gives an iffy audition performance, as if built on words unconnected to character. Getting involved with anyone is a tricky, if not outright impossible, proposition.

It was far easier in the considerably less naturalistic but infinitely more effective columbinus, which played at New York Theatre Workshop in 2006. With an expressionistic first act set in Anyschool and a second act painstakingly recreating events inside Columbine, that play forced you to experience the angst, disconnection, and hatred of everyone - victims, grievers, even Harris and Klebold themselves - from the inside out. That gave you a thorough emotional understanding of what allowed the massacre to happen - the first step toward preventing another one - in a dizzyingly theatrical package.

Storiale, however, is too satisfied with the opposite tack. It even ends with Chris singing a whiny, dirge-like rendition of "Over the Rainbow" that treats the loss of April 20, 1999, as an end in and of itself: something to cry about, not to learn from. Tragedies of this scale demand more than the easy questions and even easier answers to which The Columbine Project is so violently devoted.

The Columbine Project
Through September 13
Actors Temple Theatre, 339 West 47th Street
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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