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A CurtainUp Review
Killer Joe

A normal person is just someone you don't know real well.
----Tracy Letts
There is a very real chance that, on many nights, not a single person in the audience at the Soho Playhouse has ever set foot in a house trailer. There's a good chance that set designer George Xenos, when he was engaged to design the trailer home of the Smith Family on the outskirts of Dallas for Killer Joe, had not either. Trailer park cognoscenti will confirm, though, that he got it right, down to the last subtle, minute detail.

I mention this because it is a paradigm for our expectations of this production and, I'm delighted to report, a standard that is upheld in every nook and cranny of this production. This is a show that succeeds in large measure because there's not a lazy bone in its body.

It all starts with the playwright, Tracy Letts, who has provided an honest script that is at once clever, scrupulously written, suspenseful, subtle, complex, deep and riveting. It avoids the temptation to tell us more than we need to know, and yet it suggests enough to keep our minds racing. It is reminiscent of other plays (How I Learned to Drive, for its handling of sexual abuse; Wait Until Dark, for its shocking sense of terror; and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, for its unredeemed darkness.) But it is thoroughly on its own turf.

This is a play in which the synergy of the collaboration between the playwright and director appears to have been important in producing an amalgam of extraordinary strength. Wilson Milam directed its 1993 premiere in Chicago, and has followed it to Edinburgh, London and New York. (This production is in fact a reprise of a 1994 visit to 29th Street Rep.) His painstaking attention to the characters and the subtlety with which he highlights the play's twists and turns render this a play which (and this is a compliment) is as discomfiting as it is discomforting. A (probably obvious) caveat: Killer Joe is not for everyone. Its rough-hewn poetic qualities notwithstanding, it is ugly, obscene and unthinkably violent. Those craving a new offering from Neil Simon would be well-advised to look elsewhere.

Chris Smith (Mike Shannon), like most everyone in this play, is a quintessential loser. At age 22, he has already failed in an ill-conceived venture into rabbit farming and has turned to drugs, both for recreation and livelihood. He comes to his father, Ansel (Marc A. Nelson), desperate for money to pay his supplier. To say he's barking up the wrong tree is an understatement. Having learned that his mother (Ansel's ex-wife) has a life insurance policy to which his sister, Dottie (Sarah Paulson), is the beneficiary, he proposes to have the mother killed. We don't meet the mother, but she is held in low enough esteem that neither Ansel nor Dottie nor Ansel's current wife, Sharla (Amanda Plummer), deem the idea horrific. If the setting is alien to most of the audience, it would be nice to think the value system, dumbed down by some combination of beer, pot and television, is extra-terrestrial.

Dottie is something of a sleepwalking enigma. Whereas not many brain cells seem to have been wasted on the Smiths, Dottie at least seems to have retained an innocent sense of decency that clearly eludes the others, even in the face of sexual energy in her relationship with both her father and her brother. Sleazy but attractive, Sharla, for her part, seems to expend her sexual energy outside of the family. (This is not all that surprising once you see Ansel in almost all his glory.) She also has a great deal of animus vis-à-vis Chris.

To the ugly task at hand comes Killer Joe Cooper (Scott Glenn), policeman, misogynist and killer-for-hire. When negotiations for the murder quickly break down (Joe doesn't kill until paid, and the Smiths have no way to pay without the insurance money), Joe suggests an alternative, a retainer: Dottie's sexual favors. That's as much of the story as I can tell without spoiling the experience for you. Suffice it to say that it includes several variations on the old adage, "when you play with fire, you're likely to get burned," and that it includes several scenes with more physical intensity than any I recall ever having seen on stage. 

Star billing in this play is afforded the two cast members with film notoriety: Amanda Plummer and Scott Glenn. The truth is, this play has no "stars" but is a superb ensemble performance. These are unpleasant people -- not roles with which one is likely to become very cozy. That none of the actors ever seems less than at one with his or her role, and that there is no hint of either parody or over-earnestness in any of the performances, is a remarkable achievement, as much a tribute to the actors' hard work as to the fine script and astute direction.

Until the last scene, Ms. Plummer's role would seem to rate an "also with"billing. To her credit,  she doesn't grab for more, nor does she shrink from the abject sleaziness that Sharla represents. Scott Glenn's character is a distinct counterpoint to the Smith Family. He has a "police presence," conveying his force under a thin veneer of self-assured sang-froid. His encounter with Dottie will long be remembered for its bone-chilling sensuality.

The Smiths-by-blood are a skanky lot. The performances by Nelson and Shannon are so realistically and precisely rooted in the miasma of their trailer-trash existence that it's a bit shocking to contemplate their Playbill biographies revealing markedly different capabilities. Sarah Paulson has the most challenging chore, convincingly assaying the simple but not thoughtless contours of Dottie's character as well as enduring a humiliating vulnerability with a low-voltage current of uncommon intuition.

The other design elements likewise never disappoint. Costumes are totally in keeping with character and as nuanced as the sets. Greg MacPherson's lighting is also particularly sensitive, making especially effective use of natural lighting elements -- a skylight, a television, a candle, a refrigerator -- to strikingly set tone and minimize awkwardness. Sound design, from the near-epidemic crash of thunderstorms to the subtle, almost inaudible sound of a cheap radio in the background, reflects similar sophistication in mood-setting.

This story of low aspirations is a surprising vehicle for its accomplishments. It sets a high-water mark that warrants attention. Although not new, it is the first play of its playwright, a characteristic it has in common with another terrific play I recently reviewed, Wit. In a time when many so-called major playwrights are producing anemic works of little enduring interest, this phenomenon should serve as a source of optimism.

Editor's Note: It bears mentioning that often several of us see a show even though only one review is posted -- Killer Joe is a case in point. I saw this excitingly visceral play a bit earlier than Les. While there's no need for two reviews, since I agree with everything he said. So why this postscript? To urge all who are interested in strong contemporary drama by new playwrights to be sure to see this killer of a show. -- Elyse Sommer.

How I Learned to Drive
Wait Until Dark
The Beauty Queen of Leenane

by Tracy Letts 
Directed by Wilson Milam 
with Scott Glenn, Amanda Plummer, Marc A. Nelson, Mike Shannon and Sarah Paulson 
Set Design: George Xenos 
Costume Design: Jana Stauffer 
Lighting Design: Greg MacPherson 
Sound Design: Hired Gun/One Dream 
Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street (6th AV and Varick Street) (212) 239 - 6200 
opened October 18, 1998 for limited but open run 
Reviewed by Les Gutman October 19, 1998
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©Copyright October 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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