Los Angeles Theater Review: THE WHY (Blank Theatre)

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by Paul Birchall on September 22, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


JEFF WITZKE and NICHOLAS CUTRO in The Blank Theatre's THE WHY. Photo by Anne McGrathAmerica’s bittersweet love-and-hate affair with guns is the target of playwright Victor Kaufold’s thought-provoking but lopsided satirical revue, which premiered in 2000 at the Blank Theatre’s Young Playwright’s Festival, their annual showcase of works by teen authors.

The play was an immediate response to the massacre at Columbine High School, where a pair of alienated students stormed into their school, killing 12.  The tragedy sparked a debate on gun control laws, the same debate that transpires after subsequent school massacres, sputtering out each time almost a month later.  Why?  Well, let’s face it, Americans love their guns.  Perhaps not you, but nearby there is a fellow with a cabinet full of pistols, lovingly cleaned, who argues, “I need my guns in case someone comes to kill me. You will pry my gun outta my cold dead hands.”  So there are people who demand the right to keep their guns with the same ferocity as those who want gun laws regulating them.

NICHOLAS CUTRO, JEFF WITZKE, BEN CROWLEY, and JEN LANDO in The Blank Theatre's THE WHY. Photo by Anne McGrath

Many years have passed since the original production of The Why, but maniacal loners are still storming into high schools, university towns, and office buildings, shooting innocent victims almost as if Kaufold’s play never existed.  People really don’t change.  The pistol-packin’ rage has not been replaced by macramé or cooking or therapy, so this drama has some level of timeliness to it.

BEN CROWLEY and NICHOLAS CUTRO in The Blank Theatre's THE WHY. Photo by Anne McGrath

Director Daniel Henning’s reboot is ironically more successful in the scenes in which the issues of gun violence are dealt with straight on, rather than through the satirical elements which tend to come across as forced and tired.  The play’s central theme revolves around Robert (Nicholas Cutro), a kid who shoots five fellow students at his middle school, killing three and wounding two.  Robert’s story is told mainly through his interactions with his caring, court-ordered psychiatrist (Ben Crowley).  Cutro does a fine job of depicting the teen angst and rage that appears to have motivated his repulsive actions, though the play’s overall attitude of compassionate empathy towards the villain seems oddly misplaced. Peculiarly enough, the work is more sensitive to the killer than to the three kids who perished.


As the fiercely dedicated psychiatrist, Crowley comes across as being wonderfully kind—but I find it a little unconvincing that a court-ordered shrink would become so emotionally involved with this kid.  These scenes alternate with monologues in which a massacre survivor (Jen Landon) recounts her story, and a horrifically injured young man (Crowley, again), tells his tale about the same incident.

JEN LANDON and BEN CROWLEY in The Blank Theatre's THE WHY. Photo by Anne McGrath

Other sketches address alternate issues surrounding gun violence in the media.  Jeff Witzke and Ms. Landon portray a pair of reporters for a ghoulish Fox News-like TV channel who file reports about school shootings with a vulpine glee that suggests they only wish there were more murders so they could profit even more from them.  Although Landon and Witzke offer dead-on turns as the reporters, the vignette already seems a tad dated and trite, eclipsed by far funnier satires in The Onion and The Borowitz Report.  There’s also an imaginative recurring gag in which all four actors portray various gun-slinging characters from movies, showing off the glamorous role that guns play in our culture and imagination.

BEN CROWLEY in The Blank Theatre's THE WHY. Photo by Anne McGrathKaufold was 19 when he wrote The Why, which possibly explains both the work’s strength and flaw.  Yes, the piece crackles with genuine anger and frustration at the horrors of gun violence.  The sensibility is sincere and powerful, and director Henning does a fine job of conveying the emotions underscoring the characters’ activities and thoughts.  There’s a lot of passion here, depicted with commendable skill and ferocity.

At the same time, the piece sometimes lacks intellectual heft, and there’s a definite one-sidedness to the arguments here: Any attempt to show the other side of a discussion about guns is lampooned and ridiculed to the point that the work seems intended to preach to a choir of folks who agree with them and no one else.  A bit of compassion is a wonderful thing, but ladle too much of it into a play, and the results are merely sentimental and manipulative.

NICHOLAS CUTRO, JEN LANDON, BEN CROWLEY, and JEFF WITZKE in The Blank Theatre's THE WHY. Photo by Anne McGrath

photos by Anne McGrath

The Why
The Blank Theatre Company
The Blank’s 2nd Stage Theatre
6500 Santa Monica Blvd in Hollywood
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2
scheduled to end on October 19, 2014
for tickets, call 323-661-9827 or visit www.TheBlank.com

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