nytheatre.com review by David Pumo
January 19, 2005
Bonnie Culver’s striking and deeply effective new play, Sniper, opens with the protagonist, a seventeen-year-old boy named Anthony Vaccaro, seated on a large box in the center of the stage. Shortly he begins to list the events of a morning in the mid-1970s when he stood on a rooftop in the middle of his hometown, with a long-range rifle, and began to shoot at people in a store parking lot across the street. Several people were killed, and others wounded. We hear the shots ring out as he describes pulling the trigger and hitting or missing each target: a woman in a car is hit first in the stomach, and then in the head, as the woman beside her screams; a twelve-year-old paper deliverer is hit on the top of his head, causing part of it to rip off; a fireman responding to the emergency call is hit in the cab of the fire truck. Anthony says he remembers seeing each hit land. It looked like a rose, he says; a rose opening outward on the person’s body. We later learn that what we are listening to is the boy’s official confession to the police.
What is most striking about this first scene is not the sound of gunfire, or even the details of the event. It’s the boy’s delivery and demeanor. No, not cold and detached, as you might expect. That would be too easy. Nor does he seem to be “getting off” on the violence or gruesomeness of the event. There is nothing particularly diabolical about him, nor does he seem horrified or remorseful, though certainly he is bothered and confused by what has happened. In fact, nothing about this opening scene gives us much direction about what we are supposed to be feeling. The crime is clearly abominable. But the boy; what should we be feeling about the boy?
Anyone who remembers the many months when our country dealt collectively with the events at Columbine would agree that Culver and director, Adam Hill, made the only right choice here. There are no easy answers. Maybe no answers at all. And so, through crisp writing, tight direction and a top-notch cast, we simply learn about the life of the boy leading up to the killings, and we are challenged to come to our own conclusions about what happened that day, who is at fault, and what we might do to prevent other young people from following in Anthony’s footsteps.
The story is based on the real-life circumstances surrounding one of the first teenage rampage killings. The incident happened in the writer’s hometown in upstate New York in 1974. She did not know the boy, but remembers being in her car when an emergency broadcast came on the radio warning residents to stay inside after several gunshots were heard downtown. That the play takes place in the seventies adds the element of our protagonist having grown up during the Vietnam War. His golden-boy older brother, in fact, was killed in that war at the age of twenty-one, when Anthony was not yet a teenager. But in placing the play at this time in history, some thirty years ago, Culver also eliminates the graphic violence in movies, music, and video games, the easy accessibility of weaponry, and the nihilistic Internet chat rooms that took much of the blame for the tragedy at Columbine. There are no easy scapegoats here.
Director Hill, keeps all of the actors on the dark, gothic-styled stage throughout. When they are not in the scene, they remain seated on the side in tall-backed chairs that remind us of an altar. Much of the play concerns Anthony’s growing frustration with religion. His mother is hyper-involved with the Catholic Church, his father is disillusioned, and his friend—a good kid by any standard—is buried outside the churchyard in the old-school, pre-Vatican-Two tradition, because he committed suicide. In one of Sniper's strongest scenes, Anthony refuses to perform his duties as altar boy when the priest he has known for years is unable to explain away what the teenager sees as the Church’s complete hypocrisy.
The cast of eight is strong throughout. Kathy McCafferty and Vincent Sagona stand out in the roles of Anthony’s parents. Their performances are complex, subtle and painfully human as their relationships with each other and their son evolve, and they are forced to deal with the short and long-term effects of their older boy’s death in Vietnam. Much of the play, of course, rests on the shoulders of John O’Brien in the role of the young killer. O’Brien, in his New York theatrical debut, has borne that weight quite admirably. He convincingly takes us from age ten to seventeen, adding layers of personal history, and slowly peeling open—like a rose—to tease us with what might be inside, piquing our interest, but never giving too much or too little. When the play was over, I wanted to sit with the actor and ask a million questions about the inner life he had created for the character, just as we all have wanted to ask the boys responsible for Columbine what was going on inside their heads.
As usual at Center Stage, the sound and lighting are above average for a space this size. Bok-yung Youn’s dark, almost gothic set provides a clean, hauntingly suggestive background.