It won't warm your heart, but this tour de force of dark humor ought to thrill you
Reviewed by Avimaan Syam, Fri., June 12, 2009
Hyde Park Theatre, through June 27
Running time: 2 hr, 20 min
No one in the Smith clan can take care of themselves. Their home is a temple to squalor in a trailer park where beer cans and family members will pick up each dropped penny but won't
lift a finger for the filth that surrounds them. Ansel is 1% patriarch and 99% fool kid brother. His son, Chris, owes $6,000 for cocaine that his alcoholic bitch of a mother stole, and his current wife, Sharla, divides her time between working at Pizza Hut and photographing herself have sex with other men. And Dottie, the most together of the Smiths, is mentally impaired.
And this is before they've met Killer Joe Cooper. Let me tell you this much: There will be blood.
Killer Joe, written by Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts, is a tour de force of dark humor. Chris, threatened with death by his drug dealer, hatches a scheme with his father to have his mother killed in order to collect on the insurance. The boys come to an agreement alarmingly quickly, but – not the type to do much of anything themselves – they want to hire a professional to do things right. Enter Joe Cooper.
Now Killer Joe seems like an evil devil: He's a detective who earns a healthy supplemental income by discreetly offing folks for $25,000 a head. When things don't go his way, he not only shows brute force but a vicious temper and a flair for mental abuse. Kenneth Wayne Bradley shows all of that badass behavior from Stetson to boot tips yet also exhibits softness when he meets Dottie, even a sense of vulnerability. Killer Joe's character brings a potent concoction of homespun tenderness and unadulterated violence. In some ways, he's a Texan Tony Soprano: Is he a good person? Is he likeable? Is he a psychopath?
The hard-to-pin-down nature of Killer Joe's titular character is emblematic of the play itself, which thrills from deadpan hilarity to abuse to violence without feeling disjointed. The script has a cinematic quality, and perhaps harkens closest to a recent staple of Hyde Park Theatre, Martin McDonagh. It's a similar brand of dark humor, but chicken-fried and doused in Lone Star.
Director Mark Pickell really keeps this Capital T Theatre production moving. The play starts very brightly despite its subject matter, but the seriousness that builds behind Joe's plot doesn't derail the production's energy. Guns get pulled. Shots are fired. People get stark naked. Blood is shed. Lives are ruined; lives are lost; lives are taken. The content of this play can be difficult to watch at times, but Pickell's direction nevertheless creates several magical moments.
Killer Joe's cast certainly does its part to create that magic, too. In his return to Austin after many years in Los Angeles, Joe Reynolds has great comedic delivery as Ansel, the middle-aged man stuck with a 16-year-old's mind. Melissa Recalde shows total vulnerability as Dottie yet still brings some of the funniest moments of the night, and Joey Hood – geez, the fact that he makes it out in one piece after the way he's thrown around is enough to warrant mention. (He nails his dramatic moments, too.)
Killer Joe shows humanity at its most desperate and selfish. Your heart is not going to be warmed. But what it lacks in tenderness, it more than makes up with unbridled energy, wildly dark humor, and a gripping narrative. You can't ignore Killer Joe, and you shouldn't miss the show that bears his name, either.