The timeliness of Sam Graber’s Shooter isn’t surprising. The play, about the lead-up and immediate fallout of a failed school shooting, comes, of course, not only on the heels of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that killed seventeen people, but also amidst renewed and powerful calls for stricter gun laws from teenagers whose nation, three and a half months into 2018, has already experienced a well into the double-digits number of shootings at schools. Pick any week; chances are the play will be immediately relevant.
To make a direct appeal for gun control onstage at a small Manhattan theater would be preaching to the choir. It would also feel like a quiet murmur next to the aforementioned teenaged choir we’ve already been hearing from. But, in the face of our ongoing nationwide reckoning with gun violence and arguments for and against stricter gun control, Shooter distinguishes itself by being concerned less with guns themselves and more with the people — read: men— who have proven most likely to abuse them.
The man at the center of Shooter is Jim (Ean Sheehy). For a time, Jim enjoyed a stable life; he was married, with a job and a daughter. We never see this Jim. By the time the play starts, Jim’s wife has left him for some guy with a “fancy lakeside place.” His daughter went with her. And Jim has lost his job, after an episode in which he informed his former employer that they had “no values.” Stripped of stability, Jim goes looking for purpose in the Second Amendment. He signs up for a gun safety course.
The course is run by an oddly hammy retired cop and former SWAT team member, Troy (Michael Gnat), who would probably tell you that his course should be added to high school curricula across America. We come to know that, eventually, Jim will be in front of the local school when a student shows up with rifle. Thanks to his sidearm, Jim subdues the shooter. But he also fires fifteen shots.
The story flits back-and-forth between the lead-up and fall-out of the foiled massacre in a way that mirrors the retrospective search for missed warning signals that has become ritual in the hours and days after school shootings (the director, Katrin Hilbe, helps keep this chronological confusion to a minimum through distinct shifts in staging).
Before the shooting but after we’ve already met Jim, the would-be mass shooter, Gavin (Nicholas Tyler-Corbin) joins the gun course. But by then, we’ve already seen the aftermath of the attempted shooting and met Jim’s childhood friends, Ben-David (David Perez-Ribada) and Alan (C.K. Allen), who are a lawyer and doctor, respectively, and who have both enjoyed a degree of professional success that has Jim feeling left behind.
The play splits itself three ways. It divides itself more or less evenly between Jim’s time in the gun course, Jim’s relationship to his childhood friends, and Jim’s reckoning with what he’s done after he’s stopped the shooting. The play is at its strongest when it concerns itself with the first of these threads. One especially well-executed scene sees Jim and Gavin discussing their fathers (Gavin’s absentee dad was an “asshole”; Jim’s was a “man’s man”) and feelings of abandonment. Such moments, along with Sheehy’s portrayal of Jim as an awkward, emotionally stunted man whose efforts to bury his own feelings create pent-up pressure that you can just about hear in his voice, successfully tap into a recognizable mix of self-pity and aggression that feel urgent in the context of mass shootings.
Too much of the play, though, is spent on the less compelling elements of the story. The backstory of Jim’s relationship with his two professionally successful friends takes a while to flesh out, but it doesn’t really need to; you’ve seen this kind of thing before (everyone in his life is leaving him behind!). And the primary question of the post-shooting scenes seems to be whether Jim should be treated as a criminal or a hero (not only did he fire an excessive number of shots to prevent the shooting, we learn, but he also had a pretty good idea that the shooting would be happening). The question of whether or not this constitutes criminal behavior is not enough to drive these post-shooting scenes, and feels removed from the more compelling questions about masculinity and aggression that the play seems to want to explore.
I was also unconvinced that the choice to omit female characters was the right one. We never see Jim’s wife and daughter on stage, and every character is male. On the one hand, making these men reckon with deadly toxic masculinity is powerful in that it’s forcing them to work through their own mess — putting the onus on them certainly feels right. But I found myself yearning for a non-male perspective onstage. It might come across differently if this were a two-hander, but, particularly with a cast of five, limiting the number of perspectives constrains the play.
Still, Shooter makes a lot of smart choices when it comes to dealing with its subject. One is in the gunshots: absent are sound effects or blanks. Instead, shots are vocalized by male voices yelling “BANG!” That places the emphasis on the danger of the people behind the guns more than it does the guns themselves. It’s not a “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument; rather, it’s another clever way to signify that this particular play is emphasizing shooters over the guns themselves.
Not that the guns in Shooter aren’t scary. In one particularly visceral scene, Troy is coaching Jim through the process of aiming and firing a gun. It’s staged so that the audience is downrange from them.
“What you see here isn’t a gun,” Troy says. “What this is…is purpose.”
Whatever you call it, it’s pointed directly at us.
Shooter runs to March 31, 2018. More production info can be found here.