Bad things happen in trailer parks. Between tornados, they're magnets for human mayhem. Any episode of Cops finds a squad car rolling into some trailer park where a half-drunk, goggle-eyed good-for-nothing will be escorted in cuffs out of an aluminum double-wide as his teenage girlfriend sobs in the background, snot-smeared baby perched on her bony hip. Trailer parks are where sad, sick mamas imprison toddlers in filthy closets. They're home to escaped convicts, holed up waiting for capture by John Walsh's camera crew. The "manufactured housing'' industry may not like it, but a lot of us still think of trailer parks as godless little acres of tragedy.
The Smiths, the clan at the center of Killer Joe, a dark, adults-only comedy by Tracey Letts now playing at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary, are the lowest form of bad trailer-park people. They look, sound and smell like the trashy nobodies nobody wants living next door. Son Chris (Regan Adair) is a mean little so-and-so who owes a bunch of money to drug dealers who will kill him if he doesn't come up with it fast. His own mother has kicked him out after he tossed her into the fridge for "stealing a bunch of coke.''
Chris' sister Dottie (Amanda Wright) is a simpleminded 20-year-old virgin who "sleep talks'' and plays with dolls. Daddy Ansel (Craig Parrish) walks with a stooped-over back, like a man who's been laying brick for a lifetime and has nothing to show for it. He's shackled to second wife Sharla (Heather Henry), a blowsy brunette in blue eye shadow who's got a man on the side and more brains than anybody in redneck-land gives her credit for.
Into the lives and garbage-strewn living room of the Smiths comes Killer Joe Cooper (David Goodwin), a Dallas cop on the take who serves as a cash-up-front middleman between those who want somebody killed and those who do the killing. The Smiths need somebody killed, namely the first Mrs. Smith, who lives in another trailer in some unpleasant grove with a dude named Rex (we never see them). Chris thinks his mother has a big life insurance policy. If Killer Joe can arrange the murder, Chris can cash in the policy, pay off the dealers and split what's left with Dottie, Ansel and Sharla.
Only it's never that easy. If slick thinkers like Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck couldn't pull it off in Double Indemnity, it's unlikely these beer-guzzling half-wits will. What goes wrong and who ends up turning the tables on the bad guys is the neat surprise in Killer Joe, a twisted play that's sick, hilarious, sexy, profane and violent. Great art it isn't, but great fun it is. This first outing by the new Hellgrammite Productions is a doozy. (The adults-only classification is for full frontal nudity, heavy-duty profanity, simulated sex, constant onstage smoking and bloody violence; in other words, the stuff that makes the ticket a bargain.)
Too few plays come with plots that keep the audience guessing. This one, written about 10 years ago, does. It's edge-of-the-seat time every time things take another sharp left into screw-up-ville. Young Chris tells Killer Joe he can't front him any money. He wants Joe to take the job "on spec.'' Joe accepts but demands free access to dim Dottie, a situation daddy Ansel believes "might be good for her.'' The family leaves Dottie and Joe alone for a candlelit tuna casserole dinner. Joe, a bit more forward than the usual gentleman caller, talks Dottie out of her clothes and into his pants. She falls in love with the bad man. Nobody can decide who'll kill Mama or when, but there will be some killin's before it's all over.
All this could easily slide into stereotypical melodrama, but Letts' script is witty and clever, and director Raphael Parry keeps his actors working at a naturalistic style. Best at this is the terrific Regan Adair, arguably Dallas' best under-30 actor. Frequently cast in local theaters as a well-scrubbed young swain (he recently played Rosencrantz in Dallas Theater Center's Hamlet), Adair turns in a completely believable performance as Chris Smith, a dumb, sweaty bubba with two days' growth of beard. His scenes with Craig Parrish as Ansel ring disturbingly true. When Ansel offers to off his own ex-wife, Adair's Chris shoots down his daddy's idea. "You gonna kill somebody?'' he says, spitting the words. "You cain't even tell tiiiiime.'' These two are creeps from the wrong side of Tuna, Texas.
Newcomer Amanda Wright gives a nakedly honest (and honestly naked) performance as the nearly catatonic Dottie, a girl who in nicer surroundings still would never be any sharper than the emotionally crippled Laura Wingfield of The Glass Menagerie. As Sharla, Heather Henry is a harridan with a heart of tin. She's wonderfully nasty clomping around with a bucket of "K-Fry-C.''
David Goodwin seems miscast, however, as the nefarious title character. An exceptionally reedy actor, Goodwin comes off more Barney Fife than he should as the scary Joe. If the fight scenes were real and not fixed, any of the actors on the stage could easily snap this Killer Joe like a toothpick. Goodwin also veers too far from the natural, conversational rhythms the other actors use. Sometimes he seems to think he's back in the stylized film noir spoof The Artificial Jungle that he co-starred in at the Bath House earlier this season. Enough with the chin-jutting poses already.
The real star of this play is scenic designer Scott Osborne's authentically, extravagantly ugly set. His cross section of a trailer home looks as if it's been sliced in two by a twister. Shreds of pink insulation peek from the rooftop. The filthy orange shag carpet seems to glow with mildew. In every scene, the boxy TV set, complete with tinfoil-wrapped rabbit ears, blares in the background, airing funny car races, game shows and late-night preaching by the cosmically strange Dr. Gene Scott--a perfect detail.
Killer Joe is killer good.
Funny how seeing two completely disparate plays back to back can bring out the most unlikely similarities. You can't get much further from the drumstick sensibilities of Killer Joe than Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House , but by doggies, it turns out the two do have a lot in common. Playing one more weekend at the Greer Garson Theatre at Southern Methodist University (where I teach part time, though not in the theater division) is an elegant-looking but unevenly acted production of the 1879 play, which finds its leading character, goody-two-shoes housewife Nora Helmer, in hock to a money lender who's threatening first blackmail and then murder if she doesn't kick over the dough. Nora flies to pieces trying to keep her dirty secret, which, like a daytime soap plot, emerges on Christmas Day.
This all-student production, directed by faculty member Rhonda Blair, features especially smooth performances by Sebastian Kadlecik as Nora's stuffy husband, Torvald, Weston Davis as the oily banker who loaned Nora money on the sly and R. Brian Normoyle as Doctor Rank, a dying physician in love with Nora. Only Nora, Kara Torvik, doesn't seem right. Should Nora, one of the great female characters in Western drama, really be played as a bubbleheaded ditz? Torvik is a lovely actress, but her Nora comes across as a bustle-wearing, Norwegian Lucy Ricardo, scheming to cheat her hubby, the doctor and the banker out of a few more dollars for a new hat. She's hysterical, shrieky and too, too silly.
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