More to the Point
First the good news: GableStage's new production of Killer Joe features smart staging and engaging performances, backed up by a terrific design team. South Florida theatergoers should consider themselves lucky to have this company in their midst.
Now the not-so-good news: Despite the merits of this particular production, Killer Joe is pretty much an aimless exercise, and there's really nothing that director Joseph Adler or his talented company can do about it. Containing graphic violence, full frontal nudity, and foul language, Killer Joe is calculatingly provocative. But lacking much point or purpose, it is provocation for its own sake.
Set in a trailer-trash world on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas, Killer Joe presents us with some oh-so-unlovable characters. Chris (Mark Whittington), a sad sack drug dealer, hopes to murder his divorced mother for an insurance-policy payoff. After Chris convinces his drink-sodden father, Ansel (Ken Clement), to go along with the scheme, the two hire a vicious hit man known as Killer Joe (David Caprita) to do the job. Joe, who happens to hold a second job as a police detective, warns his clients he charges a hefty fee for his services. But Chris and Ansel are so eager to grab the insurance windfall, they are ready to agree to just about anything. Trouble is Joe lusts after Chris' wispy, mentally unbalanced sister Dottie (Charlie Becker) and demands her as part of his payment.
This is an interesting, disturbing premise, one that offers the potential for both high drama and black comedy. It's the sort of territory Sam Shepard explored in the '70s and '80s, using such grotesque situations to make his thematic points. Here playwright Tracy Letts is less concerned with ideas than with "good old-fashioned drama," which for him means two things: a good story and interesting characters. Not a bad goal to shoot for, but Letts, a former actor, achieves only the latter. Since the twisting, turning plot doesn't go anywhere in particular, the result is more an exercise in stagecraft than a completely realized play.
Director Adler seems to accept the limitations of his material, opting for a snappy comedic pace for much of the evening. The loony father-son dialogues clip along like vaudeville turns as Whittington and Clement snap and bark at each other in skillful rapid-fire patter. But there's a price to pay for this louder/faster/funnier style. When the tale turns dark and desperate, these two characters seem to belong to some other story, as if Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton had stumbled into Medea.
This intentional clash of styles and moods, which dates back at least to Shakespeare, has become a signature of 1990s fin-de-siècle drama, turning up in everything from Angels in America to Pulp Fiction. It's another device for confrontation, forcing the audience to adjust its assumptions of how to respond. It's also a little tired. What is serious may be funny and what is funny may be deeply disturbing. But while Killer Joe succeeds in portraying crime as buffoonery, it has a harder time bringing its clowning back around to gripping drama.
It's only when brooding Joe begins to stalk dotty Dottie that the play heats up in some unnerving, white-hot scenes. Here Adler opts for a looser, more naturalistic pace, abetted by several eerie touches: long, tension-filled silences, the strange creak of a bedroom door hinge, the dance of hunter and hunted moving in and out of shadows and light.
Caprita's reptilian Joe, coiled and menacing, seems an ominous threat to Dottie at first. But as Becker plays her, Dottie is filled with secrets and hidden powers and soon becomes more of an accomplice than a victim. Becker gives an intriguing nuanced performance, an interesting match for Caprita's muscular, intense Joe. Pamela Roza also merits a nod for rock-steady support as Dottie's bad-tempered stepmother.
The production is aided in no small measure by Lyle Baskin's excellent set design, a perfectly awful trailer interior that's crammed with the flotsam of trailer-trash culture: sagging junk-store furniture sits cheek by jowl with battered wire wheel covers, Bob's Big Boy knickknacks, and a collection of Lone Star beer bottles. M. Tony Reimer's jarring, spooky sound design is another terrific element, as are Daniela Schwimmer's realistically tacky costumes and Jeff Quinn's noirish lighting.
Letts, who has enjoyed popular and critical acclaim for his play in New York in the 1990s, has been quoted as saying that his play was "born in response to theater that had become a platform for preaching or philosophizing." Well and good. But drama, like nature, hates a vacuum. If Letts chooses not to examine a particular theme or issue, that doesn't mean his play lacks one. In Killer Joe it would be this: laughter as class warfare. The characters are caricatures for sure, and clearly we are meant to laugh -- but with them or at them? These rednecks may be miserable, vicious, incestuous, and tacky, but we are allowed to find them humorous because they are poor. I assume Letts had no such idea in mind, but substitute any minority group you care to think of for the word poor, and you would see picket lines outside his play that would dwarf the crowds supporting Elian Gonzalez. Now there's some provocative theater.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the South Florida art and theater scene.