The Erlkings

By Nathaniel Sam Shapiro; Directed by Saheem Ali

Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 12.13.14
Theatre Row - Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street


by Sarah Moore on 11.20.14

The ErlkingsJames Scully as Dylan Klebold and Em Grosland as Eric Harris. Photo by Carol Rosegg.


BOTTOM LINE: The Erlkings explores the psyches of Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold through their own writings, but doesn't achieve the necessary dramatic heft. 

Writing a play about real people is a daunting task. Especially when you’re writing a play about the real people at the heart of 1999’s Columbine tragedy. Nathaniel Simon Shapiro's The Erlkings is an admirable idea, but doesn’t quite make the case that this is a story that needs to be staged.

Dylan Klebold (played by James Scully) and Eric Harris (Em Grosland) are the now infamous perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. Shapiro has crafted the majority of the text of his play with the journals, poetry, and other messages left behind by Klebold and Harris. I think the goal of this was to humanize them by showing that they were unhappy, bullied, and mentally ill, but these texts just don’t work dramatically.

These pieces of text are often announced in third person by the actor. For example, Scully precedes a line by letting us know it’s “Dylan Klebold’s journal.” This removes us from the action by reminding us that it’s a play, rather than letting us get emotionally involved with these actors. This technique works better in a scene in the science class, where a third actor playing the teacher announces that the text is from an IM conversation. In addition to the texts used, Shapiro creates awkward moments to show that the teachers don’t understand the boys, and attempts to inject humor. The fact that the teachers ignored the signs that these boys needed help and care is not something to joke about.

The Erlkings is crafted to show the lives of the boys before they commit the Columbine massacre, but there isn’t really a clear plot, or indeed any dramatic tension, since we all know how it is going to end. The play simply shows us that the boys are angry and violent. We see them making a pipe bomb and then pulling it out at the pizza place. We see them at school where Dylan is being scolded for using violence and profanity in a school essay. Certainly Doss Freel's functional and attractive set allows for the play's various locations; there is a grid of backpacks on the ceiling, which fall every so often onto the stage. But using the facts about Eric and Dylan that we know from the news or from doing Internet research doesn’t really help to create any sort of dramatic arc. To tell a story using a new medium, it is important to somehow elevate the story, in a way that watching a television report on Columbine, or else reading the boys’ letters, cannot do; I don’t think The Erlkings makes a strong case for dramatization.

The title of The Erlkings comes from a poem by Goethe, which is extensively quoted and explained in a program note. It is unnecessary, then, to have Dylan and Eric lip sync along to a moment from the opera, reiterating the source of the title. Seeing Dylan as the pianist and Eric as the singer does not help with the story they are trying to tell. Scully and Grosland both give committed performances that show many layers of these notorious teens. But while the tragic story of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold has the potential to be a moving drama, Shapiro’s work is not there yet.

(The Erlkings plays at Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, through December 13th, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays through Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $59.50 and can be purchased from Telecharge or by calling 212.239.6200)