"The Library" takes place in "the near future," according to a program note. But the drama about the aftermath of a school massacre feels very much like the too-near past or the very-almost present.
And this is the problem in the 90-minute attempt to unearth new perspectives on shootings in schools. The play has been directed with emotional clarity and an exquisitely discerning eye by Steven Soderbergh, the chameleonic Oscar-winning director ("Traffic") who recently retired from film to explore other art forms.
But the play, by his frequent screenwriter Scott Z. Burns ("Contagion," "The Informant!") dwells on the familiar questions -- most wrapped in the "Rashomon" idea about whose memory is truth. For much of the early scenes, there is also the uncomfortable aura of grief porn -- that is, the allure of suffering that we know so well from nonstop TV interviews.
But there is something wonderful in the center of the drama, and that is the radiant, delicately powerful talent of Chloë Grace Moretz. The rising teen movie star -- like director and author, also in her New York stage debut -- is altogether believable and complicated as Caitlin, a student badly injured in the shooting spree in the library. Instead of sympathy, however, she is accused of having told the shooter where schoolmates were hiding.
As the play opens, she is already lying on what appears to be a slab, or a gurney, or a library table -- one of several that dominate Riccardo Hernandez's austere and glossy but somehow never sterile set. We hear doctors and nurses talking about her condition.
Before long, we hear the doctors identifying her as the one who told the shooter where the kids were hiding. Soon, she also is known as the one who tried to pass the blame onto one of the girls who died.
That girl Caitlin blames happens to be one who began a prayer during the massacre. Her mother -- played with a scary balance of empathy and religious dogma by Lili Taylor -- tries to make sense (and then a bestseller) out of the loss.
Soderbergh uses his fine cast -- including Michael O'Keefe, Jennifer Westfeldt and Tamara Tunie -- both as flawed human beings and symbols in silhouettes. Lights suddenly change at least as theatrically as emotions. For all the promising ideas, including an underdeveloped one about the books these teens were reading, the stories are pat and the ending tidy -- exactly what these real-life horrors are not.
WHAT "The Library"
WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
INFO $40-$85; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Pat stories of a school massacre.