Vivid violence, full frontal female and male nudity, constant profanity. Live. Not a movie. Thus comes the in-your-face reputation of Killer Joe by Tracy Letts, his first produced play, from 1993. This is the guy who gave us Bug three years later and who was given a Pulitzer for his August: Osage County in 2007, the least aggressive of those three.
barebones productions puts this to us. Like any other of barebones’ shows you can expect exceptional acting, great directing and an impressive, realistic set. This item has the added attraction of local, famed rocker Joe Grushecky singing and guitaring intermittent bluesy items to add to the color. He sounds just fine.
This comes on the kicking heels of a bb production of Bug back in 2007 right upstairs of all the Forbes Ave. heavy traffic, youthful saunter and slouch of Pitt U-ville. And here again Letts hits on white trash. You may have read or heard about Letts’ aim to depict people struggling with moral and spiritual questions, saying he was inspired by the work of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. Right. Uh-huh. But both of those writers find compassion and tenderness among lost souls. Letts ain’t into that scene here.
Full-time loser Chris, his stepmother Sharla and his dad Ansel come up with a scheme to kill off Chris’ estranged and nasty mom so that his sister Dotty can collect on the life insurance and they can split the proceeds. To do that they hire detective Joe Cooper whose part-time job is contract killing. He lusts for innocent and temporarily virginal Dotty. You witness sleazy, greedy, nasty people scheme and stumble, turn slimy and vicious. I suppose, after the ultimately violent goings-on, feeling you have to justify your admiration for how well the whole thing comes off, you may wonder what’s the fucking point? How about the old playing- with- fire bit? That’ll work OK. But of course, none of us can identify with such Texas low-life as this. So consider yourself at some kind of zoo, circus, freak show.
Given those parameters, admire especially Point Park U Junior Hayley Nielsen’s perfect take on Dotty and Patrick Jordan’s approach to playing against the obvious darkness which inhabits Joe’s soul, subtly menacing, like a gun in the pocket rather than on the table. Lissa Brennan and John Gresh always look and sound right too as Sharla and Ansel but John Steffenauer’s take on Chris doesn’t have as much definition.
This has often been called a dark comedy. Surely it has the potential to be funnier than this, given that Chris, Dotty and Ansel don't have full houses upstairs. But it can work well without provoking laughs. And it does work. Who can tell for sure just why director Kim Martin decided to stay straight and narrow? Who cares? Clearly she got it all together, pacing-wise, truth-wise. And Randy Kovitz’ astonishing fight staging certainly adds to the reality.
This play has been praised all over world maps. Beats the hell out of me why. Sure, you can appreciate how much the performers make out of it with all that visceral action grabbing you. Too bad you can’t care about the characters. Too bad it says so little. Although not an action movie, it comes close, even as it comes so close that you can smell the sweat. Wipe the popcorn grease off your hands.
Killer Joe continues through July 10th at the New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East
1-888-71TICKET i.e 1-888-718 4253 barebonesproductions.com