An agitated anguish beats against the walls of ritual in “The Events,” a solemn, searching and ultimately very moving play about a faith-shattering act of violence. This gutsy work by the Scottish dramatist David Greig, which opened on Thursday night at New York Theater Workshop, sets the restless pain of a mass-shooting survivor against the stolid, consoling presence of a community choir.
It’s a juxtaposition that evokes Greek tragedy, in which choruses of common humanity echoed and annotated the words of afflicted heroes. And the program for this production includes a note from its director, Ramin Gray, that speaks of the inspiration of the ancient Athenian theater, where “important issues were collectively considered by the community.
Of course, ready-made formal choruses aren’t as easy to come by in the 21st century as they were in the age of Sophocles. So “The Events,” staged to great acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013, has looked to one of the nearest contemporary equivalents, the local choir.
The production enlists a different local singing group for each night of its performance. (This is surely the only show in town that features a “choir outreach intern” in its program.) And the members of that group — mine was the Stop Shopping Choir — sing spiritual backup to two spiritually challenged characters, while occasionally taking on a bit of scripted Brechtian role-playing.
This sounds like a recipe for a disastrously ragged night, saturated in the sort of groovy sincerity you associate with flower-power political happenings from the 1960s. But there’s sharp and provocative calculation at work here as well. And the combination allows “The Events” to address and embrace, with its own slanted eloquence, atrocities that are usually beyond words.
The crime at the center of “The Events” was partly inspired by the 2011 attack by a lone terrorist on a summer camp on the Norwegian island of Utoya, in which dozens of people were killed. Here, the setting seems to be a village in Scotland.
But the man who opens fire one day on a group of people in a community center there shares at least some of the ideology of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian shooter. Certainly they would seem to espouse a similar xenophobic creed of racial purity and the ideal of the tribal warrior.
The people besieged by the gunman in “The Events” are thus an eclectic group, of many colors and origins. Together they make up a choir, presided over by Claire (Neve McIntosh), a priest who takes pride in her group’s openness to all ethnicities. Yes, it’s the choir — the emblem of comforting, all-assimilating community in this production — that’s the target for annihilation.
Ms. McIntosh is one of a cast of two. Its other member is Clifford Samuel. With a wit and agility that never call attention to themselves, he portrays not only the shooter, identified only as “the Boy” and a type who fits the expected angry loner profile, but also Claire’s lover and psychiatrist, as well as assorted local residents whom she interviews in her obsessive quest to figure out why the shooting happened.
Neve McIntosh, foreground, in "The Events." CreditRichard Termine for The New York Times
As directed by Mr. Gray, on a set that brings to mind any old shabby rehearsal room, “The Events” bends and warps chronology. At moments, we seem to be watching Claire rehearsing her reassembled choir at some point after the massacre. At others, we are reliving the moment when the shooter shows up at an earlier practice and Claire invites him to join the group.
Mostly, though, the play exists in an eternal purgatory of unanswerable questions and might-have-been conjectures. Claire talks to (well, mostly at) her partner (a woman who makes yurts, wouldn’t you know?); a grief counselor; the Boy’s father; a right-wing politico whose teachings the Boy followed; and a schoolmate who remembers how the Boy was bullied and rejected. Yes, the clichés are all in place, as they almost always are in after-the-fact analyses of such situations, and Mr. Greig is well aware of how identifying these familiar patterns fails to provide satisfactory answers.
In pursuing her investigation — which also includes the travesty of bringing a healing, soul-restoring shaman to choir practice — Claire becomes ever angrier at the emptiness of the results. As bravely embodied by Ms. McIntosh without an iota of audience-courting charm, Claire is abrasive and often irritating company.
As her fantasies of confrontational encounters with the Boy expand, she becomes downright scary. Survivor’s grief doesn’t purify her; it contaminates and misshapes her. “The Events” bravely gives aggressive and unapologetic life to Claire’s descent into monomania.
It becomes clear why the choice was made to have all the other characters played by the same actor who portrays the Boy. We are caught in Claire’s mind, where everyone assumes the aspect of the person who aimed the gun at her and killed or wounded all those people in her charge.
Yet the choir, or some form of it, is intact throughout the show. It sings both traditional hymns (like “How Great Thou Art”) and pop numbers (like Dizzee Rascal’s “Bonkers,” the gunman’s favorite song), as well as a quietly wrenching hymn of acceptance by John Browne. I have no idea what kind of preparation the singers are allowed for their one-night appearances.
But the Stop Shopping Choir exuded that piebald mixture of tentativeness and enthusiasm that makes nonprofessional singing groups so uniquely affecting. Its members are just trying their best to find, as a collective force, some harmony and beauty in the rough, often ugly natural ingredients of daily life.
That they’re still singing by the production’s end is by no means a form of closure, if such a thing even exists. It’s even suggested that we may have returned to the original day of the shooting. But there is real transcendence in this melding of separate voices. And for me, that’s more than cold comfort.
By David Greig; directed by Ramin Gray; music by John Browne; designed by Chloe Lamford; lighting by Charles Balfour; sound by Alex Caplen; assistant director, Rosemary McKenna; music director, Magnus Gilljam; music supervisor, David Dabbon; stage manager, Sarah Tryfan. An Actor’s Touring Company production, presented by New York Theater Workshop, James C. Nicola, artistic director; Jeremy Blocker, managing director. At the New York Theater Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street, East Village; 212-279-4200, nytw.org. Through March 22. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
WITH: Neve McIntosh (Claire) and Clifford Samuel (the Boy).