Comedy might be the last approach you’d expect a playwright to take in response to the Columbine High School massacre of April 20, 1999, but leave it to an audacious teenager to pen The Why, the darkest, funniest, most button-pushing and thought-provoking play you may ever see about gun violence.
A mere nineteen at the time of The Why’s World Premiere just a year after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered thirteen at Columbine High School, Victor Kaufold now gets his Ovation Award-nominated play revived under the inspired direction of that production’s original helmer, Daniel Henning.
Standing in for Columbine High is Kaufold’s fictional May Lawrence Middle School, where seventeen-year-old Jeremy Lamb has shot and killed William Blackwell, Jamal Livingston, Jessica whatever-her-name-is (Jeremy’s words, not mine), and left Alec “with hamburger meat for a face.” (Again, the shooter’s words.)
As in other gun violence-related plays, The Why introduces us to both the killer and those affected by his bullets—the teen survivor whose face has been shot off, the Murder News “investigative journalists” who delight in reporting on the latest killings, a trio of fictional teens thought up by a pretentious 40ish playwright, a bullied student who might just be the next Jeremy Lamb, a couple of avid, addle-brained TV viewers, a trio of self-proclaimed gun violence experts, the guitar-strumming bloodhound Jeremy would have had had he had a dog as a pet, a May Lawrence student who barely managed to escape with her life, a pair of gun-loving 2nd Amendment fanatics, and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder himself, “facing accusations that his song ‘Jeremy’ may have served as a motivation for young murderer Jeremy Lamb.”
Playwright Kaufold’s audacity is evident from The Why’s outrageously over-the-top opening sequence, a hilarious movie genre-spoofing standoff between a Die Hard-ready Tough Cop, a Tarantino-esque Gangster, a John Wayne-like Sheriff, and a Guy Ritchie-style English Outlaw Chick that sets the play’s irreverent tone.
Slick TV journalists (“Stay tuned for Murder News. Because there’s three kinds of people in this world … The murders, the murdered, and the well-informed), clichéd teens straight out of a CW nighttime soap (“Shut up Mitch! You can be a real butthead sometimes, you know that?”), Constitution-thumping gun lovers (“If the teachers in those schools had guns, then they could’ve shot them little killers!”), voices from the opposite side (“Ban guns! Also ban the bullets that are shot from the guns!”), and people who wouldn’t be caught watching the news because “Nothing but one bad thing after another”—all of these get skewered in The Why.
Interspersed amongst the satirical are serious, subtly-played scenes of Jeremy’s sessions with the well-meaning social worker assigned to his case, along with the recollections of a middle schooler who escaped by hiding in a supply closet (“I actually started counting my heartbeats, like I only had a few left”) and a walking-wounded Alec who can only repeat “I’m afraid. I’m afraid. I’m afraid.”
Oh, and there’s Jed, the most disturbing singing-songwriting bloodhound ever to take centerstage at Hollywood’s Blank Theatre … or anywhere else.
In hands less accomplished than those of director Henning and the four brilliant actors who bring to life more than two-dozen characters over The Why’s intermissionless ninety minutes, attempts to stage Kaufold’s challenging play might prove ludicrous, and indeed some might still complain about “tonal shifts” or “making light of tragedy” or it still being “too soon.”
Still, Joan Rivers may have put it best when she told a Wisconsin heckler one night, “Oh, you stupid ass. Let me tell you what comedy is about. Comedy is to make us laugh. If we didn’t laugh, where the hell would we all be?”
And laugh you most certainly will (if you understand comedy as Joan did) and cheer at curtain calls for the simply sensational performances of Nicolas Cutro, Ben Crowley, Jeff Witzke, and Jen Landon.
Positively riveting as Jeremy, the gifted Cutro shines too as a playwright attempting to channel his inner teen and as a Bruce Willis stand-in, and Crowley dazzles as a concerned therapist, a bullied nerd, a shell-shocked shooting victim, the one-and-only Eddie Vedder, a tightly-wound gangster, and more.
Witzke is phenomenal too as (among others) a glib anchorperson, a grizzled cowpoke, a cartoonish bully, and a country music-loving bloodhound.
Perhaps most stunning of all is Landon as a Diane Sawyer-meets-Mary Hart reporter, a bubble-headed cheerleader type, a hard-as-nails English chick, a heartbreakingly traumatized teen, and a couple more just as terrifically rendered.
Henning has directed The Why on an almost entirely bare black stage with only a few straight-back chairs scattered about and Sarah Kalb’s pitch-perfect costumes-for-26 hanging upstage for frequent quick changes. Martha Carter lights the cast with dramatic flair (and at one point black-lights the side walls to devastating effect), with Rebecca Kessin’s inventive sound design upping the tension every step of the way. Kudos too to properties designer Todd Koval for his guns (“Please note that all guns used are fake guns”) and other assorted accoutrement.
The Why is produced by Sarah Allyn Bauer, Henning, and Noah Wyle. James Michael Hughes, Koval, Evan Martinez, and Katie Woerner are associate producers. Casting is by Erica Silverman Bream & Cara Chute. Samantha Else is stage manager.
Understudies Maxwell Hamilton, Edward Hong, Jason Weiss, and Katy Stoll cover Cutro, Crowley, Witke, and Landon.
At one point, a journalist interrupts the action to complain about what he calls the offensiveness of “this kind of gross satirization.” “The who, the what, the where, the when,” he tells us. “They’re all accessories. The Why is the only thing that matters.”
It will probably come as no surprise that a play taking on the complex issues surrounding Gun Violence In America leaves it up to the audience to determine for themselves The Why, if ever that answer can be determined.
What is important at the Blank is simply that the question is asked … in the most daring and adventuresome of ways.
The Blank’s 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
September 28, 2014
Photos: Anne McGrath