Sweet Revenge

Playwright Tracy Letts gets the last laugh on Dallas

Killer Joe, which the 10-years-sober Letts admits was written in a boozy pre-AA frenzy in 1991, debuted two years later in Chicago's 40-seat Next Lab Theater--to decidedly mixed reviews. The Chicago Tribune hailed it as "one of the year's best" while across town the Sun-Times critic was calling it "one of the worst" plays he'd ever seen. Having already been warned that audiences would be so put off by the violence, sex, nudity and the crash-and-burn lifestyle of its drastically dysfunctional characters that they would be bolting for the exit before the first act was completed, Letts was relieved when theater-goers seemed to grasp the irony and dark humor of his writing.

Now, a decade later, his play has become a cult classic. The fascinating two-act peek into Dallas' trailer-park dark side has been performed in 15 countries in 12 languages since its Chicago debut. It won top honors at the Edinburgh, Scotland, Fringe Theater Festival in '94, then played to sellout audiences at London's The Buck and West Theater during a four-month run in which it won the Time Out Award as the Best Play of 1995. Ultimately, it found a long-running off-Broadway home at the 200-seat Soho Playhouse.

And along the way Letts has climbed in the ranks of American playwrights. Still, he dismisses critics' observations that he has been strongly influenced by the early works of the legendary Sam Shepard and the violent and bloody films of Quentin Tarantino. He admires Shepard, Letts says, but has never attempted to emulate him. As for Tarantino, he points out that "the guy was still working in a Hollywood video rental store when I wrote Killer Joe, so I can hardly see his work affecting mine." Instead, he says, he has drawn inspiration from the plays of Tennessee Williams and the gritty novels of William Faulkner and Oklahoma-born Jim Thompson.

The naked and the dead:  the cast of Killer Joe
The naked and the dead: the cast of Killer Joe

And certainly, there has never been any shortage of creative juices flowing through the Letts family genes. "I grew up in a home where art, the discussion of art, movies, writing and music were always very important," Tracy says. "We read together and discussed what we'd read. We'd all go to the movies and come home and talk about what we'd seen. There was only one stereo in the house because we all listened to the same music." And it wasn't unusual for the young Letts and his college professor father, Dennis, to share the same stage in community theater productions.

Which is to say Tracy Letts was raised in a far different environment from that about which he now writes.

His parents both taught English at Durant's Southeastern Oklahoma State before retiring to enter second careers. Mom's now putting the finishing touches on her third novel (she and Tracy recently co-authored a screenplay of her second best seller, Honk and Hollar Opening Soon, which features a zany cast of characters who parade in and out of a small-town drive-in restaurant). Meanwhile, father Dennis busies himself as a character actor, having now appeared in more than 40 theatrical and made-for-TV films, ranging from the Waxahachie-located Square Dance to the Dallas-filmed Killing in a Small Town to the Tom Hanks blockbuster Castaway.

Yet, if any member of the Letts family takes his or her success too seriously, it doesn't show. Tracy insists his mom's greatest achievement, despite her phenomenal writing success, came when she won his hometown's Great Gravy Cook-Off a few years back. And he has a favorite story about his 69-year-old dad's late-in-life film career: "Several years ago," he says, "Dad was cast as this really ugly drunk in a Dolly Parton movie called Wild Texas Wind. After it came out, Mom was in the grocery store one afternoon and this friend of hers came up, all distraught, and whispered, 'Billie, honey, I'm so sorry. I had no idea Dennis had a drinking problem.'"

For good measure, Tracy's brother Shawn, 44, is a jazz musician and composer, recently called to Chicago from his home in Singapore to write the music for his brother's latest play. "He," Tracy insists, "is the most talented of the bunch."

The family playwright, however, is moving up fast. No less than the staid Christian Science Monitor recently noted that "behind the nudity and violence of Tracy Letts' black comedy there beats an American playwright with a highly promising future."

Take that, Dallas.

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