The farcical, satiric The Why is less a sociological postmortem of why American high school students resort to mass shootings than a sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes somber catalog of all the reasons why not: not video games, not shoot-'em-up thrillers, not Marilyn Manson, not bullying by the popular kids, not insufficient religion, not societal pressure, not an overabundance of guns. Trying to pinpoint the why, the play argues, is as slippery and futile an exercise as attempting to delve into the inscrutable dark heart of humanity itself.
Directed by Daniel Henning, the play traces one such killer, Robert (Nicholas Cutro), who has shot and killed three classmates and now meets with a therapist (Ben Crowley) from inside a juvenile detention facility. In between their counseling sessions, Murder News anchors (Jeff Witzke and Jen Landon) dish the latest updates on a separate shooting, a playwright adapts a TV movie–style saga about a potential gunman and a guitar-playing bloodhound croons ballads about Robert’s fate.
Written by then–19-year-old Victor Kaufold, the play earned an Ovation nomination for world-premiere playwriting when it was first produced in 2000, shortly after the Columbine massacre. The Blank chose to revisit the script this year to kick off its 24th season. Since The Why’s debut, highly publicized shootings have continued but their scope has widened. We’ve seen attacks not only on college, high school, junior high school and elementary school campuses but also on army and naval bases, in movie theaters and hair salons. The character of the shootings has changed, and so has the discussion around them.
Though concerns about violent entertainment haven’t entirely vanished, incidents such as those at Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut, have steered the national conversation toward the availability of mental-health resources. The play’s bite, so on point nearly a decade and a half ago, misses the mark now, while its vivaciousness feels born of a time when such events remained a relative novelty. Largely absent is the profound weariness, 14 years on, felt by many in the wake of countless horrific acts and the apparent lack of political will to stop them.
There’s plenty of comic relief to cut the tension, but the dramatic bits have weathered better than much of the comedy. (A notable exception: Landon’s hilariously cadenced TV newscaster reporting one tragedy with increasingly tortuous metaphors.) Cutro’s performance captures Robert’s quicksilver changes and tentative steps toward remorse through a growing intimacy with Crowley’s therapist. The Why avoids the temptation to settle on easy answers, but through no sin of its own, it speaks to a debate that has since moved on.
The Blank @ 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd., through Oct. 19. (323) 661-9827; www.theblank.com.
Jenny Lower on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: