First Nighter: Hollywood Expat Soderbergh Stages The Library

It's close to a year since Steven Soderbergh announced he'd be quitting movies. Now he surfaces at the Public Theater as director of The Library, from a script by his frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns. In light of Soderbergh's radical decision and also in light of the story he's telling on a stage, it's a fascinating transition.

The engrossing action involves the aftermath of a Columbine-like school massacre and specifically the fate of several students seeking shelter in the fictional Golden Valley High School library. The most prominent of them for Burns' purpose is 16-year-old sophomore Caitlin Gabriel (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is shot by Marshall Bauer, the marauding student, just before he's heard asking someone where other students are hiding.

According to Ryan Mayes (Daryl Sabara), who was in the library waiting for his brother, Caitlin is the one who informs Bauer that others are in the nearby audio-visual closet -- whereupon the assailant opens the closet door and kills everyone inside, including Mr. Curtis, a teacher.

Ryan's account is believed by investigating detective (Tamara Tunie) as well as by Caitlin's parents Nolan (Michael O'Keefe) and Elizabeth (Jennifer Westfeldt). Ryan is definitely believed by Dawn Sheridan (Lili Taylor), the mother of the deceased Joy Sheridan, who becomes the other likely suspect who might have responded to Marshall before he shot her.

What The Library concerns is Caitlin's continuing determination to clear her name even as it increasingly becomes besmirched. Soderbergh and Burns are interested in examining one of the effects that can result after horrifying incidents of this nature. How hysteria -- sometimes called "massteria" -- catches up a saddened community intrigues them.

As Burns writes it, the three Gabriels are ostracized, a situation made worse when Dawn Sheridan publishes a book called Teach My Heart to Fly that reaches the seven slot on the New York Times Book Review. In it she claims Joy would forgive Caitlin for her transgression were she able, but since Caitlin is aware of her own innocence in the matter, she wants to hear none of this sanctimony.

As The Library proceeds, the audience understands that Caitlin is telling the truth. She's correct when she identifies the girl who'd been praying before answering Marshall as Joy. Whether and how she's cleared of suspicion won't be divulged here to avoid spoiling the intermission-less 90-minuter's mounting suspense.

Given the nature of the enterprise, there's no mistaking that Soderbergh and Burns are taken by the power of intentional and unintentional lies and the concept of recovered memory. (Remember Soderbergh made his name on the low-budget Sex, Lies and Videotape.) The men are disturbed by the means often employed when agitated crowds need answers to questions not easily or quickly answered and grab at whatever even slightly credible is offered them in the moment's heat.

Such occurrences are commonplace, which is part of the continuing frustration of social behavior. The manner in which Soderbergh and Burns recount the story has its own fascination, however -- especially in regard to Soderbergh's exiting Hollywood with such trumpeting fanfare.

Absorbed initially, the play gives the impression that Soderbergh is making as strong an anti-cinematic statement as he possibly can. The Library takes place in a theatrical limbo designed by Riccardo Hernandez. He want to evoke a library through the use of four tables, some chairs and little else. The color of the set is morgue-neutral so that lighting designer David Lander can wash other shocking solid colors on it. As actors enter and leave between scenes, blinding white light prevails. Whenever Marshall is reported as having fired a fatal shot, a long vertical red flash hits the center of the upstage wall.

As if to say "So much for you, Tinseltown, I've abandoned you for the stage," Soderbergh is ostensibly resorting to no filmic conceits. He pushes them aside. They're in his past. He's deliberately, unmistakably dealing in everything theatrical.

Or is he?

Maybe not so thoroughly. As The Library sequences follow one another with the cast members having finished speaking their lines and then walking into the wings, they do so after rarely raising their voices. The admirable young Moretz as Caitlin maintains an insistent tone -- that's when she isn't lying on a supposed gurney recovering from her complicated wounds. O'Keefe and Westfeldt maintain their puzzled, worried demeanors. Tunie keeps a detective's professional attitude. Sabara stays within the expressions of the harried adolescent he's presenting. They and colleagues perform as if they're participants in a dramatic replay.

That's to say, there's a consistent level reached and sustained. Over the course of the play, that consistency increasingly suggests something familiar. What is it? What is it?

Ah-hah, here's what it is. It's the level at which people speak in a documentary where they're recollecting a past event in tranquility -- or in whatever strain of tranquility they can muster. Where once they were in the thick of it, they're now remembering with a modicum of calm. It's the tone in which people speak when they know the camera is watching them in close-up and they want to register how reasonable they are.

Soderbergh has said as much in a recent New Yorker interview when he told Hilton Als that "it [is] his job to bring close-ups to the work. Extending his arm as though touching something we couldn't see, he said, 'That's what I have to do, make the audience feel they're looking at someone that closely, but on the stage.'" So with The Library -- absorbing as it is -- Soderbergh may have left Hollywood behind, but he hasn't entirely abandoned the craft of filmmaking.