The family members of Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe are just like the Westons of August: Osage County would be if the Westons weren’t so sweet and cuddly and loving. Chris (Matthew Marcus) owes $6,000 to some local thugs, and his life will be forfeit if he doesn’t come up with the cash. His idea is this: hire a professional killer to whack his mother, who has a $50,000 life insurance policy made out in favor of Chris’ childlike sister Dottie (Jennifer Osborn).
Chris’ dad (William Aitken) thinks this is a great idea, and they decide to engage the police detective and part-time hitman Killer Joe Cooper (Sun King Davis) for the transaction. The problem is, Killer Joe expects his fee to be paid up front, and Chris and his dad – to call them trailer trash would be insulting to trailers – are not in a position to give it, and so they decide to offer a side of Dottie as an additional inducement to the killer.
Well. From the very first moment, when Chris’ stepmother (Mallory Shear), naked from the waist down, lets Chris in the trailer in the middle of the night so that he can answer the call of nature, we understand that we are not watching an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Chris has been thrown out of his mom’s house after confronting her for selling his cocaine to raise money for repairs to her Pinto; Chris had intended to use the drugs to pay off his debts. Seething with dreams of revenge, Chris hatches his murder-for-hire plan. His dad, sipping beer and muting the television during the commercials, agrees with him.
There are some that say that Killer Joe is a critique of the forgotten poor during the prosperity of the Reagan years. It is no such thing. The people Letts trots before us in this show would be failures in any era; highly defective people; America’s Least Wanted. If we gave them caviar they would choke on it; if we placed them in mansions they would set them on fire, burning to death while watching television. Real poor people, on the other hand, are generally folks with great dignity and self-awareness, just like the majority of the rest of us.
No, Letts despises his characters, and, at his instigation, they engage in depravity after depravity, with great invention and enthusiasm. It is up to the actors to find a recognizable moral center for each of them, and to proceed from that point. In the SeeNoSun OnStage production, the actors are succeeding, and so Killer Joe, notwithstanding its bizarre events and tragic conclusions, is a story with human dimensions, engaging and sympathetic.
We see in it the seeds of his later, better plays: August and Superior Donuts. Letts in this piece had not yet mastered the acidic invective which characterizes his later work, but he knew how to write lines that good actors could go to town on, and they do here.
Davis is at his best here as the killer, a man of good manners and cheery demeanor who remembers to say please and thank you before carving off your face. He is Hamlet’s “smiling villain,” supplementing his public servant’s salary. He seems smooth and charming, if only in comparison to the rest of these yahoos, but it is the charm of the cobra, who displays his beautiful hood before killing.
Matthew Marcus plays Chris. Those of you who saw Marcus in 731 Degraw Street will get a look at an entirely different skill set here. In the Venus Theatre production, he played a sneering creep who couldn’t work up the energy to achieve disdain; here he is all passion, and no judgment. Chris is the engine who pushes the action, and his frantic bile must be sufficiently urgent to move his passive companions into calamity. Marcus’ is.
He is assisted in this by Osborn as Dottie – more about her later – and the veteran Aitken as Chris’ dad, Ansel. Ansel is a mound of indifference to whom ideas occur at random, as a distraction from his television show. He is occasionally angry, and in one memorable instance fearful, but otherwise it is clear that he makes decisions quickly in order to be freed of the annoyance of thinking. There is a delicious moment when Chris barrels into the house after being badly beaten by his creditor thugs; Ansel, awakened from slumber, rolls out of bed, grabs a beer, and sits down in front of his static-ytelevision to watch NASCAR. It wouldn’t work, though, unless Aitken had set the character up, and he does.
Closes June 29, 2014
DC Arts Center
2438 18th Street NW
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Shear, an incredibly beautiful woman, has, as Ansel’s bride Sharla, the appearance of a trophy wife. But trophy for what? As far as I know, they do not give awards for the consumption of beer. Sharla, too, has concluded that she is entitled to more than she’s gotten so far, and it serves as a secondary engine for the play.
Amidst all of this fine acting, the real eye-opener is Osborn, who seems to play several characters in one and makes them all seem real. Dottie is twenty-five going on twelve; a woman who still plays with her food. She is as docile as a trained dog, and prone to sleepwalking; at one point after her mother’s funeral she wanders into the kitchen and announces that she can’t sleep with her mother in her room. But at other times she seems like she is awake and sleepwalking too. Letts puts it on Dottie to make all the most implausible plot developments in his play seem believable, and she does it.
There is an extended fight scene – not as extended as the one in Superior Donuts, but more intense, as the victim is a woman. Director Michael Wright (who consulted Todd Fleming on the fight) pulls this off well, and generally takes maximum advantage of the tiny DC Arts Center stage.
Killer Joe, obviously, is not for everyone. Perhaps you’re wondering if it’s for you. Here’s a good way to decide: If you’ve gotten this far in the review, it probably is.
Killer Joe by Tracy Letts . Directed by Michael Wright . Featuring Sun King Davis, Matthew Marcus, Jennifer Osborn (who also served as costume designer), William Aitken and Mallory Shear. Costume design: Jennifer Osborn . Lighting design: Brian Allard, assisted by Christina Giles . Set construction: Brandon Guilliams . Produced by SeeNoSun OnStage . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
John Stoltenberg . DCMetroTheaterArts