In his 2018 comedy special Kid Gorgeous, John Mulaney recounts the crime safety (or “Stranger Danger”) lectures delivered to him and his fellow classmates by former Chicago cop J.J. Bittenbinder. (“Time for ‘Street Smarts’ with Detective J.J. Bittenbinder. Shut up! You’re all gonna die. ‘Street Smarts!’”)
Bittenbinder was making his mark during those more innocent pre-Columbine days when the national narrative (reinforced by milk cartons everywhere) was that strangers outside the school walls tossing kids into trunks of cars was the greatest criminal threat they faced, instead of (probably male) classmates with killing machines invading the educational sanctuary and wreaking havoc.
Sure, Brenda Spencer shooting up an elementary school in San Diego in 1979 with the excuse “I don’t like Mondays” got enough worldwide publicity to inspire a Boomtown Rats hit, and Laurie Dann’s murderous 1988 assault on Winnetka’s Hubbard Woods Elementary led to a book by former Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn and a made-for-TV movie starring Valerie Bertinelli as a thinly veiled Dann. But it took the cumulative effect of Columbine and Virginia Tech and Parkland and too many others for schools to start incorporating active-shooter drills as if they were on the same plane as fire and tornado drills. In the process, we’ve turned mass murder into something akin to a tragic accident or a natural disaster—horrible, yes, but really unavoidable—rather than deal with the root human and political causes of gun violence.
This Is Only a Test
Through 3/12: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; industry night Mon 2/28, 7:30 PM, understudy night Wed 3/9, 7:30 PM, Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, brokennosetheatre.com, pay what you can.
Those drills are the crux of Eric Reyes Loo’s This Is Only a Test, now in a world premiere with Broken Nose Theatre under Toma Tavares Langston’s direction. A John Hughesian quartet of high school students—a nerd, a jock, an overachiever, and an out-of-the-closet gay theater kid—are subjected to the training of a former military dude who’s selling his active-shooter survival “strategies” to schools. The principal is skeptical, but he convinces her that she has more to lose with parents who will blame her if a shooting happens than with gutting still more of the arts and sports budget to finance the “security” program. (Which is more expensive than the clear plastic backpacks the kids carry, for sure.)
Like Mulaney, Loo seems interested in exploring how early exposure to safety measures that seem to offer precious little protection can scar a kid’s psyche for life. In a program note, Loo writes about seeing a school-shooting drill on a news special. “I couldn’t process what I was looking at right away. Is it funny? Is it sad? Is it tragic?“
It’s all those things, and his play tries to grapple with all of it, to diminishing effect over the two acts. In addition to the tensions between the kids at the school, which include a tentative-and-fraught gym friendship between jock Wynn (Austyn Williamson) and drama king Kramer (Graham Helfrick), Loo weaves in scenes involving the parents (all played by RjW Mays and Christopher M. Walsh, who also play the principal and the security consultant). These seem designed to help us understand how scary the world outside the school also is for these kids. It’s particularly effective when Wynn, who is Black, is reminded by his mother not to leave the house while wearing his hoodie.
But Loo never shows us enough of the inner life of these kids for some of the shifts in character to fully make sense. Maybe that’s the point he’s trying to make: we never know what kids are going through, or when one might “snap” under the weight of being asked to deal with adult situations beyond their years. However, here the changes in persona seem almost arbitrary, with scenes included as a way to check boxes on a list of challenges facing the students, ranging from free-floating teen insecurity (embodied best by Sophia Vitello’s mousy Lenore) to a neglectful stepdad who keeps a handgun within too-easy reach. Academic powerhouse Selma, played with pinpoint intensity by Zhanna Albertini, finds her surface confidence dropping every time she’s in the presence of both her stepdad and the security guru, until she somehow finds a dark energy of her own.
In Lenore’s case, the shooter drills actually seem to give her a sense of power and agency she lacked before; the girl who could never get cast in school plays starts booking commercials, much to the disgruntlement of Helfrick’s Kramer. But while it’s a funny aside, it feels out of place, as if Loo is saying, “Hey, maybe some good comes out of this insanity.” (Liliana Padilla’s How to Defend Yourself, produced at Victory Gardens in February 2020, handled some of the same issues of empowerment and danger more effectively, and Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s Do You Feel Anger?, produced at A Red Orchid Theatre that same year, captured the absurdity of Band-Aid corporate trainings; both confronted the essential dilemma of security vs. fear with greater depth than what Loo provides in his play.)
There are a lot of interesting ideas floated in This Is Only a Test, and lord knows the topic remains sadly relevant. Monday marked the fourth anniversary of the Parkland shootings, which spurred the March for Our Lives movement and the sense that kids are fed up with being victims and pawns, and are ready to demand real change. This Is Only a Test doesn’t show that step into activism. But then again, maybe that’s because putting the onus of change and protection on children, rather than the adults in charge, is also inherently absurd.