Wednesday, January 22, 2020

150 (2019-2020): Review: 17 MINUTES (seen January 16, 2019)

"Another School Shooting Play"

17 Minutes, by Scott Organ, a Barrow Group production, is the latest run-of-the-mill play trying to come to grips with the rash of school shootings that have rocked the nation, particularly since the tragedy at Columbine two decades ago. Just in the past few years, New York stages have offered such works as The LibraryOffice HourPunk RockThe ErlkingsThis Flat Earth, and When It’s You, each with its values but none—other than, perhaps, Punk Rock—of more than momentary interest.
Brian Rojas, Larry Mitchell. All photos: Joey Moro.
One of these, When It’s You, is a solo play in which a distraught, mature woman remembers a high school boyfriend who recently slaughtered a bunch of students. The others, despite the frequent presence of adults, generally focus on students affected by a shooting. Organ’s own The Thing with Feathers, an excellent work also done by The Barrow Group, has been cited as thematically similar to 17 Minutes. However, that play, while socially relevant, is mainly about an inappropriate Internet relationship, not school violence.
Larry Mitchell, Shannon Peterson.
In 17 Minutes, no students appear. Its plot is clearly inspired by the story of Scot Peterson, the school resource officer who, based on evidence including timeline data, failed to confront the shooter during the Marjorie Stoneman High School massacre in Parkland, Florida; his career and life subsequently went into decline. 
Larry Mitchell.
17 Minutes focuses on Deputy Sheriff Larry Mitchell (Andy Rubens), a soft-spoken, married man who served in Iraq. Assigned with his partner, Mary (Shannon Patterson), to security detail at a local school, he failed to act in the presence of an active shooter who killed 18 children. This is noted in his inability to account for a 17-minute gap in the timeline of events. As the work proceeds, it goes from Larry’s giving a statement at police headquarters to scenes set at home, at his office, at a bar, and outside the school, each showing his psychological deterioration as the weight of his guilt slowly crushes him. 

All the action transpires in a gray, oblong box of concrete and bricks, designed by Edward T. Morris, with the small audience seated in bleachers on either side, where it can see its counterparts across the stage. (Why, I couldn't help wondering, was that woman in the first row smiling all the time?) A few basic furnishings, shifted briskly by the actors, represent the various locales. Solomon Weisbard’s effective lighting, Matsy Stinson’s everyday costumes, and sound designer Emma Wilks’s musical backgrounds create an appropriate atmosphere.
DeAnna Lenhart, Larry Mitchell.
When the play begins, Larry, questioned by Detective Morris (Brian Rojas), seems bewildered by his actions during the shootings. Some things are fuzzy, some are clear but, despite insisting he did what he was trained to do, he’s unable to satisfactorily account for that 17-minute gap. 
Larry Mitchell, DeAnna Lenhart.
In the following scenes, we watch him interact with his supportive wife, Samantha (DeAnna Lenhart), who wants him to retire, take his endangered pension, and move to Tucson. This and other scenes demonstrate the marital tension his situation has created. Meanwhile, while being publicly denigrated, he feels even more remorseful when he hears from his partner, Mary (Shannon Patterson), the emotional story of how she captured the 15-year-old shooter. It's a scene—like so much else on view—that eschews histrionics for underplaying. As Andy’s guilty feelings grow, so does his obsession with cleaning his Glock, as if, rather than seeking therapy, he can thus wipe away his perceived transgression. 
Larry Mitchell.
As in so many other plays with anguished characters, our antihero tries drowning his sorrows at a bar, which provides an excuse for him to encounter Dan Watson (Michael Giese), the equally tormented father of the shooter, who expostulates on “poetic justice” and raises the issue of how people whose inaction sparks disastrous outcomes can’t help reliving the past to see what they might otherwise have done. “We are defined by what we didn’t do,” he postulates. 

Finally, his job lost, his pension questionable, his marriage on the rocks, his self-respect in the tank, he sits with his gun in the schoolyard as a memorial for the slain children goes on inside. We know what he’s considering, of course, but then one of the victims’ mothers, Cecilia (Lee Brock), disenchanted and searching for meaning, steps outside, spotting the deputy and his firearm. What follows may not provide a dramatically satisfying conclusion but it does, at least, offer a note of forgiveness. This isn’t something we’ve necessarily been hoping for on his behalf—whatever that might be—but it at least brings the lumbering play to its end.
Larry Mitchell, Michael Giese.
Organ’s contribution to the school shooting debate does little to illuminate either the issue itself or the unavoidable problem of assigning blame. The play avoids polemical debate and lets the action speak for itself, but the characters never engage us deeply enough for us to care. There’s also little that’s distinctively original in the situation, and the ultimate point of the play—apart from the overused one about forgiveness—doesn’t move the needle on the central issues. More passion and ideas can be found in a single speech by David Hogg or Emma Gonz├ílez than anything on view in 17 Minutes. 

Throughout, the tone is low key and conversational, almost as if it’s being filmed in closeups. Seth Barrish’s naturalistic direction, which worked perfectly for The Thing with Feathers, is far less compelling here, where only a few minor flare-ups break through the torpor. While the intimacy of the scenic arrangement probably inspires this approach, the quiet, restrained performances—very well-done as they are—establish a dry, undramatic atmosphere.

Concentrating on internal character dynamics, the style forces us to lean in to catch all the words. It soon flattens out into nontheatrical dullness, making the 75 minutes of 17 Minutes seem more like 170 minutes.

TBG Mainstage Theatre
312 W. 36th St., NYC
Extended to March 1