The Last Wives Club

There's no doubt that into every marriage creeps, or perhaps floods, moments that inspire you to dream of snuff films with your mate in a starring role. But to truly consider following through? Well, that's another matter, as well as the plot for Michele Lowe's 2002 dark comedy The Smell of the Kill, which opened last week at Palm Beach Dramaworks.

Somewhere in the fictional Chicago suburbs, it's 9:30 p.m., and three nearly middle aged-women linger in a McMansion's elaborate kitchen while their husbands putt golf balls in the living room. The couples have repeated this dull, monthly routine for two decades too long beyond fraternity lives not easily left behind.

Each of the three women is enslaved by her husband in a different way. Aggressive career woman Nicky (Maribeth Graham), newly wise to her husband's embezzling career, may lose everything to keep him out of jail. Caustic Debra (Stacy Schwartz) obediently serves her abusive, adulterous husband. Sweet, randy Molly (Irene Adjan) suffers from the fascistic adoration of a husband who smothers her with love, except when it comes to sex and making babies.

Along comes a solution to their problems that, although not premeditated, certainly appears convenient. Nicky's husband has recently built a basement meat locker to store the results of hunting expeditions, and when the men accidentally lock themselves inside, thoughts of freedom in Nicky's head catalyze a game of "Let's Kill Our Husbands."

Antipathy toward stupid white men, an inescapable component of suburbia's ennui, proceeds to transform snuff-film fantasy into darkly amoral possibility. Hmm, what will the ladies do?

The men of Lowe's play are never seen, arriving only as voices (and pounding on walls) from offstage. The Smell of the Kill is a woman's play, after all, and throughout, Graham, Schwartz, and Adjan make a well-blended ensemble. However, for all of their solidly heart-filled work, The Smell of the Kill settles into what feels like a 90-minute pilot for a Desperate Housewives knockoff, with some Thelma and Louise and Natural Born Killers tossed in.

Nothing in the play's writing — a series of one-liners pieced together for an audience laugh track — rises above the level of a sitcom on ABC's Friday-evening prime-time lineup. Yes, we do laugh, especially at Adjan's winsome antics and the athletic mania of Graham and Schwartz, who pace each other like a homicidal Lucy and Ethel. But Smell can't make up its mind. At times, it attempts madcap farce, while at other times, it attempts morality play.

After the pivotal moment when a quiet, brooding Graham, as Nicky, suddenly realizes the malignant inevitability of her plan, the text flatlines. It never fully draws you into the comic netherworld necessary to maintain the farce. Nor does it ever reach a moral crescendo serious enough to carry you through post-theater coffee at Starbucks.

Director J. Barry Lewis and his players have worked doubletime to make up for the play's words, as did set designer Sean McClelland, who created an onstage kitchen so chic and well-equipped that audience members sighed, "I wish I had a kitchen like that."

So much effort for such a lackluster play makes you wonder — why? "Why" is a legitimately dominant question that may inspire a look back at the play's production history for some answers.

Smell's history shows that it actually received a Broadway nod in the spring of 2002. Like many plays working their way down the long road to the major leagues, though, Smell was born in the provinces, in the winter of 1999 at the Cleveland Playhouse, a production the Cleveland Plain Dealer called "witty and beautifully crafted."

When the play moved on to the Berkshire Theatre Festival in the summer of 2001, the Boston Herald noted, "Even though it's brief, Lowe's clever approach to committing the unthinkable crime delivers a satisfying whiff of pleasure." The Boston Globe called it "just an anecdote."

It was open season when Smell reached Broadway. The New York Times deemed it "underweight," USA Today called it a "turkey," and the Daily News puzzled on how it ever made it to Broadway in the first place. It was axed after just a month, and back in Cleveland, a Plain Dealer obituary defended that "the $1.2 million Broadway production was largely savaged by the New York press. Attendance at the Helen Hayes Theatre, one of the smallest Broadway houses, fell well below 50 percent of capacity."

Since 2002, The Smell of the Kill has found hosts in Denver, San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, all with mixed results. The country mouse has come back to the provinces.

Regardless of resurrected or current criticisms, Smell carries possibly unforeseen appeal to the niche audience well-represented at Sunday matinees. "Greatest Generation" married couples make up a majority of regional theater's target demographic, and in the audience sit row after row of couples that have been together for five decades. Fifty years of marital snuff fantasies are probably more than enough to appreciate The Smell of the Kill as long-overdue fetish porn.

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Dave Amber