We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Just before sunrise in an Illinois cornfield, a high-school kid takes a bullet in the back. There’s no rhyme, no reason, just a random act of violence that interrupts one particularly vital life and throws a dozen others into disarray. It could be a perfectly good peg for a traditional whodunit, but in Paulette Laufer’s new play, Taking My Life in Your Hands, this calamity is less the point of the story than a point of departure—the proximate cause for what turns out to be a reasonably intelligent but rather torpid meditation on fate’s erratic, inscrutable nature.

And sadly for director Eric D. Schaeffer and the valiant actors at Signature Theatre, this crucial moment must wait until Laufer has dispensed with nine or 10 character introductions and a good bit of setup business. The pivotal gunshot doesn’t come until nearly halfway through—long past the time when the audience might reasonably have tired of preliminaries and begun to wonder when something was going to happen.

As news of the shooting spreads, reaction varies (though Laufer requires her characters to spend more time talking about their reactions than actually reacting). The point of the title—underscored by blocking that frequently keeps actors at a distance from one another, even while they converse—seems to be that everyone who encounters this tragedy takes the facts of the victim’s life into their hands, trying to arrange them into some coherent shape, some order that makes the whole business comprehensible.

R.C. Carlson is appropriately pompous as a local talk-show host; he and his two researchers (splendidly frumpy Nancy Robinette and earnest Kyle Prue) try to get a grip on the horror by digging into the story and letting the populace vent its outrage, along with its morbid curiosity, on the air. Meanwhile, a bitterly disillusioned young woman (Rachel Gardner, in an arresting performance) comes forward, offering what she thinks are clues that could lead to the answers everybody wants. But she has her own baggage, and her suspicions turn out to be slightly off-target.

The three friends who find themselves at the center of the nightmare—one of them is the victim—are played engagingly by Jeff Lofton (the winsome, intelligent geek), Scott Harrison (the agreeable superjock), and Deanna Harris (the would-be med student who’s breaking up with one and wondering whether she could fall for the other), and Marcia Gardner gives a brittle and uncharacteristically understated performance as the victim’s mother, walking a thin line between despair and rage. Beverly Brigham has a juicy, quirky role as the ghost of the witness’ grandmother, who stalks around the cornfields delivering pithy pronouncements like an arch, overeducated version of The Stand’s Mother Abigail.

The play’s argument is that no matter how badly we want to see cause and effect, life isn’t ever entirely tidy, doesn’t ever make sense from all perspectives. Instead of trying to point this out directly, Laufer seems to want to demonstrate the futility of attempting to prove its opposite; her characters flail about, searching for patterns in chaos and demanding meaning from chance. That sounds nice in theory, but after a while it becomes a little monotonous onstage—perhaps because this play is about a series of unanswerable questions rather than a series of events.

Schaeffer and his technical crew have tried to punch up the drama with heavily atmospheric lighting and sound design (some of it, including snippets of a talk-show theme that sound vaguely reminiscent of the All Things Considered music, is quite clever), and James Kronzer’s set, as usual, is striking—a cramped trapezoidal space for the talk-show office, surrounded (as is the audience) by tall, slender laths clustered in angled bunches meant to suggest cornstalks. And there’s that one rather overworked element of suspense: Who did it, and why? But while Laufer’s topic is intellectually intriguing, her narrative, at least to city-dwellers largely inured to senseless violence, just isn’t that dramatic.

There are problems with the script, too. Some of the language is genuinely beautiful, and there’s no shortage of wit. (“Even your scholarship’s bigger than mine,” complains the brainy kid to the athlete, “though ‘scholarship’ really should imply scholarship.”) But the script’s main conceit is a hindrance: The very few segments of dialogue that actually advance the present-time action are delivered fairly straightforwardly, but whenever there are clues to be revealed about events of the past (recent or otherwise), characters inevitably speak in overlapping fragments. The auctorial notion, one suspects, is that facts rarely arrive in neat packages, and that a person’s understanding of events depends on the order and fashion in which details are presented.

It’s a nice thought—the whole package is a nice thought, really—but the effect is too elliptical, too carefully allegorical; more than one patron at the snack bar during intermission was heard to observe rather crossly that it wasn’t at all clear who had been shot. Playwrights take notice: Clever literary devices are all well and good, but audience confusion is never a happy sign.CP