Steven Soderbergh may have ”retired” from movies, but thank heavens he has not completely abandoned directing. And in his New York stage debut, The Library (playing at the Public Theater through April 27), he helms a modest but thought-provoking drama about the aftermath of a deadly shooting at an American high school. Scott Z. Burns, who scripted Soderbergh films like The Bourne Ultimatum, Contagion, and Side Effects, poses provocative questions about how an all-too-familiar tragedy can make extreme demands on survivors to follow certain well-established modes of reacting and to never stray too far from expectations.
Take Caitlin, a waifish sophomore who survives her gunshot wounds only to confront a media-fueled firestorm over her alleged connection to the killer and an accusation that she might have directed him to the whereabouts of other students hiding during the attack. As played with preternatural poise by the 17-year-old movie actress Chloë Grace Moretz (Hugo, Carrie) in her professional stage debut, Caitlin is a fascinating bundle of contradictory impulses shrouded in a hoodie. She’s a knockout.
The adults around Caitlin only add to her pressure, from her recently estranged and financially strapped parents (Friends With Kids’ Jennifer Westfeldt and Too Big to Fail’s Michael O’Keefe) to the well-meaning local priest (Ben Livingston) to an oddly aggressive detective (Law & Order: SVU’s Tamara Tunie). Then there’s Dawn Sheridan, the deeply religious mother of a slain schoolmate who becomes a media sensation for her vocal prayers during the assault. Portrayed by the sensational Lili Taylor with understated fierceness, Dawn is a remarkable character who makes even an expression of forgiveness seem confrontational.
Working with the simple, stylized sets by Riccardo Hernandez and David Lender’s effective lighting design, Soderbergh takes an interestingly stripped-down and fundamentally theatrical approach to the material. For the opening scene set in a hospital operating room, the doctors are reduced to voiceovers as Caitlin lies prone on a table that will later double for a dining-room table and a school library desk. In a flashback sequence, the killer (Spy Kids’ Daryl Sabara), a 21-year-old voc-ed dropout and sometime pizza delivery guy, delivers his lines far upstage, his hoodied face in shadows to increase the anonymity of his menace.
Soderbergh’s accomplished staging helps to mask the shortcomings of Burns’ play, particularly the late reveal of a crucial piece of evidence that would not plausibly have been withheld so long in real life. That narrative stumble undercuts what makes much of the play so challenging and deeply real about Caitlin’s plight. It also brings a too-pat sense of resolution to a story whose strongest attribute is its bracing ambiguity. B+