Sweet Revenge

Playwright Tracy Letts gets the last laugh on Dallas

It was a bright and crisp Durant, Oklahoma, morning and she was sitting at her kitchen table when a dozen red roses arrived for novelist Billie Letts--a gift from her editor in celebration of her arrival at the No. 1 spot on The New York Times best-seller list. Yet the 64-year-old teacher-turned-novelist kept deflecting the subject from herself. Though her visitor was asking all those "how does it feel?" questions about celestial sales of her Where the Heart Is, its being picked as an Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection, the flood of love-poem reviews and word that Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd were going to star in the movie version, she wanted to talk about her actor-playwright son.

While her novel, which eventually would spend more than 40 weeks on the Times list, is a warm, funny, feel-good tale of a charming and pregnant 17-year-old abandoned by her boyfriend in a small-town Wal-Mart, son Tracy's writing has received international acclaim for his exploration of far darker corners of the human condition.

"We definitely write different things," she says. "I try to be upbeat and funny. Everybody in Tracy's stories gets naked or dead." Which is the best tongue-in-cheek review of Killer Joe, currently playing at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary (through December 13), you're likely to read.

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

Tracy Letts' characters also smoke dope, booze to excess, cuss like sumbitches, live in a shabby trailer house "on the outskirts of Dallas," watch the Home Shopping Network and Road Runner cartoons on their rabbit-eared TV, consider a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a bag of Doritos fine dining and conspire with a bad-to-the-bone Dallas cop to bump off a pretty sorry excuse for a mother.

This isn't A Tuna Christmas, folks. In fact, with its title character a police officer who moonlights as a hit-man-for-hire, it makes the city's recent fake-dope scandal look like kid stuff. We're not doing a review here, but suffice it to say there are few survivors by the time the house lights go up. Letts' dark-comedy characters give the phrase "white trash" new meaning and steal away any hope he might have of earning praise from the Chamber of Commerce or a citation from the Dallas Police Department.

"I'm absolutely startled--but very pleased--that it is being produced in Dallas," the 48-year-old says from his home in Chicago, where he's a member of the legendary Steppenwolf Theater ensemble and preparing for the November 20 premier of his newest play, Man From Nebraska.

This time his target is suburban Lincoln, where a quiet, happy insurance salesman-father-grandfather wakes one morning to suddenly realize he no longer believes in the Almighty. And next February, his Bug, a dark, paranoid and highly praised love story set in a seedy Oklahoma City motel room, will have its off-Broadway premier after successful runs in London and Washington, D.C.

"All three plays," Letts says, "are about people struggling with moral and spiritual questions. Killer Joe and Bugs have kind of a boiler-room intensity about them while Man From Nebraska deals with a little more subtle kind of pressure."

OK, but why the outskirts of Dallas as the setting for Killer Joe after he admits that he got the idea from a newspaper article about a Florida father-and-son plot to kill the wife-mother for the insurance payoff?

Letts ponders the question for a moment, then laughs. "Revenge," he says.

As a teenager just graduated from Durant High School in the early '80s, he moved to Dallas with high hopes of beginning a professional acting career. "I just couldn't get through the doors," he recalls. "I did a little fringe theater, a few things on Lower Greenville, but mostly I waited tables and worked in telemarketing for two very frustrating years."

If there was, in fact, a highlight to his brief and unhappy stay in Dallas, it came when he successfully auditioned for the part of famed Waco iconoclast William Cowper Brann in late Fort Worth newspaperman Jerry Flemmons' one-man play O Dammit! "It was part of a New Playwrights Series, sponsored by SMU," Flemmons explained before his death in 1999, "and readings were held at the Dallas Public Library. My first reaction upon seeing Tracy was to wonder why in hell they couldn't find someone other than a skinny little high school kid for the part. But he was really good, quite talented."

It was a judgment ultimately shared by the theater community in Chicago to which Letts moved and found an acting home at age 20. He worked steadily at the 29th Street Repertory Theater, the Steppenwolf and Famous Door for the next 11 years. Performing in productions such as Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain and Don DeLillo's Day Room, he received rave reviews. "Letts," wrote the Chicago Sun-Times, "is an actor of such blistering intensity that you can almost feel the blood surging between his heart and brain."

Today, Letts' growing list of acting credits also includes work on TV sitcoms such as Seinfeld, The Drew Carey Show and Home Improvement and appearances in such theatrical movies as U.S. Marshals. It is, however, as a writer that he has earned his loudest applause. And criticism.

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.

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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