When the house opened and I walked into the New Ohio Theatre from the snow storm outside, the smell of the stacks of split firewood that make up the walls of J.D. Salinger’s New Hampshire cabin hit me first. Warm light and the soft sounds of Beatles records round out the feeling. Nick Benacerraf’s set design transports you immediately to this remote bunker, a dreamy secret clubhouse for those who fantasize about being able to express their adolescent dissatisfaction as well as Holden Caulfield. A writing desk with typewriter sits prominently downstage, an altar to the misunderstood, self-pitying American male.
The population of this single room consists of the legendarily reclusive novelist himself (Bill George), John Hinckley Jr. (Scott R. Sheppard), whose assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan was carried out with a copy of The Catcher in the Rye in his pocket, Mark David Chapman (Jaime Maseda), the man who issued a copy of the book as his statement of purpose after murdering John Lennon, and Zev (Matteo Scammell), a mysterious newcomer whose connection to Salinger and his work is unclear.
The killers are collected there in an effort to help Salinger complete and publish a new work based on his experiences in WWII, a task they’ve had little luck accomplishing, as Salinger works at his own pace with no clue that they’re there. Nonetheless, Chapman and Hinckley are happy to continue pretending to make a difference for the man they idolize.
The literal timelessness of the play and the violent tendencies of the men who inhabit it call for manic performances, and they are delivered. Maseda’s Chapman, in particular, oscillates well between the self-important, all-knowing bully who controls the room and the petulant child who channels his feelings of betrayal through Holden. The show is made up of a series of explosive moments followed by lulls, and while it occasionally feels like we’re left too long without the seething energy present in its best moments, George’s direction navigates us mostly successfully through the ups and downs.
The show’s strongest moment, and one that cuts to the core question of the work, is when Zev challenges the devotion of the would-be assassins. After admitting he feels no real affinity with Holden or the novel he comes from, Zev describes his own ideal act of violence: An automatic weapon massacre in a public place that breaks the current record of sixty-nine shooting fatalities in one incident. The picture he paints looks much more like recent acts of domestic terrorism like those at Sandy Hook, Charleston and San Bernardino than the single-minded acts of obsession that Chapman and Hinckley are famous for. They cannot find the glory in his fantasy, but to the outsider their acts are easily comparable. George and her collaborators successfully draw a line from Holden to Chapman and Hinckley to the modern moment’s brand of mass murder. Each has his actions rooted in the violent romance of masculine fragility.
Holden does not take place in reality. It is not concerned with practical questions about mental health and violent behavior, but it does provide us with an interesting portrait of overlapping obsession and a close look at the occasionally blurry line between well-articulated discontent and the delusional rantings of young men who believe they haven’t been dealt the hands they deserve.