Nathaniel Sam Shapiro was only nine years old in 1999 when the Columbine High School massacre occurred. But his fascination with the killings ultimately led him to write The Erlkings, a bold attempt at documenting the days leading up to the tragedy through the actions and words of the killers. Employing dialogue taken verbatim from the letters, diaries and videos left behind by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, along with imagined scenes of their high school days of bullying and being bullied, Shapiro’s play, his first to be produced, is hauntingly odd and as emotionally detached as its two protagonists.
The audience enters to find some 29 backpacks ominously hanging from the ceiling over the stage. As the play progresses a bag occasionally comes crashing down. It’s a rather genius way to deliver a prop into a character’s hand, but more importantly it is one of several techniques that purposely keep the audience from settling too comfortably into the show. There is a surreal lip-sync sequence done to an operatic version of Der Erlkönig, (the death-of-a-child poem from which the play’s title is derived). There are numerous scenes recreating the filming of videos by the duo and all are punctuated with loud disruptive beeps. And every time a real-life piece of writing is recited, it is prefaced by the character disrupting the scene to identifying its source. The overall effect is decidedly Brechtian, a concerted effort to keep the audience from turning sentimental.
In a fascinating piece of casting, transgender actor Em Grosland plays Eric Harris. Petite and waifish, like one of Peter Pan’s lost boys, Grosland nonetheless commands the stage with an intense anger parked behind an ice cold, empty stare. In back-to-back scenes cleverly staged by director Saheem Ali, Grosland does well in demonstrating the pleasure and ease with which Harris could construct a pipe bomb, and then the fumbling frustration of not being able to properly fold a pizza box at his after-school job. Less effective is James Scully, making his New York theater debut as Dylan Klebold. He catches fire late in the show in a video game fever dream, yelling “Spacebar!” every time he takes a life. However he fails to find many flavors in his character’s multiple levels of rage, and is most effective when portraying calmness in the face of creepiness. When his Dylan matter-of-factly explains that he sometimes pretends to be a girl online to get guys turned on, even Eric seems disturbed that Dylan finds nothing wrong with the activity. Indeed, sexual frustration runs deep with both of the boys, never so much as in the play’s best scene, which takes place in a biology class. Seated with female partners as they dissect frogs, Grosland recites from a transcript of Harris interacting with a girl via an AOL chatroom, while Scully recites one of Klebold’s letters professing anguished love for a girl in his class who doesn’t know he’s alive.
A supporting cast of five portray the various students and adult authority figures that surround the boys. It is not clear whether Ali was trying to lighten the mood, or create another intended distraction, but a few of the characters are so broadly comic that their scenes defuse the production’s intensity. Blair Baker is fine as girl pal Tiffany, but she plays an English teacher with all the subtlety of a Saturday Night Live sketch. Putting Reynaldo Piniella in a hair net to play a lunch lady was an off-key distraction, and in what should have been a very complicated scene between Harris and his erstwhile prom date (Kayla Wickes), a sex act turns into a strange mix of physical comedy, exaggerated facial expressions and a bad pun. Fortunately, Grosland is able to steer matters back onto their fatal track, so by the time that Eric and Dylan proclaim, “I want to burn the world,” nobody is laughing.
The Erlkings – by Nathaniel Sam Shapiro, Directed by Saheem Ali.
WITH: Em Grosland (Eric Harris), James Scully (Dylan Klebold), Blair Baker (Language Arts Teacher, Tiffany, Science Partner), Matthew Bretschneider (Friend B, Chris), Jonathan Iglesias (Mr. Tonelli, Jock), Reynaldo Piniella (Friend A, Customer, Lunch Lady), Kayla Wickes (Pizza Girl, Science Partner, Prom Date).
Scenic design by Doss Freel; costumes by Lux Haac; lighting by Katy Atwel; original musical by Michael Thurber; production stage manager, Sarah A. Tschirpke; at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42 Street. 212-239-6200, Through December 13, erlkingstheplay.com, Running Time: 2 hours.