Next Theatre Company’s Next Lab


Wysiwyg Theatre

at the Heartland Studio Theatre

Tracy Letts’s first professionally produced play, Killer Joe–currently receiving its premiere at the Next Lab–is a tightly written, nicely paced, finely directed work with more than enough plot twists and surprises to keep the eyes of even the most television-besotted audience members glued to the stage. Watching Letts’s story unfold, it’s hard not to admire his craft: every second of stage time serves his story, and many of his characters come across as real people with their own foibles and ways of speaking. And director Wilson Milam has assembled a fine five-member cast who perform with the sort of polish, intensity, and commitment reminiscent of Steppenwolf in the early 80s but as rare as truffles in today’s crowded theater scene.

Yet nothing in this artful, intelligently executed production can make up for the fact that at the center of the play is something so disturbing, so gratuitously nasty, brutish, and misogynistic it all but cancels out the work’s finer qualities. Peppered through with random acts of violence and cruelty, especially cruelty against women, Letts’s play–like slasher films and hard-core pornography–quickly proves as degraded and symptomatic of our society’s sickness as anything it portrays.

Set in a beat-up trailer home somewhere on the outskirts of Dallas, Killer Joe concerns an acrimonious, hyperdysfunctional family of sub-blue-collar types–father, stepmother, and two dim adult children, Chris and Dottie–who become convinced that they’ve got to waste daddy’s first wife for the insurance money and hire a hit man for the purpose: Killer Joe Cooper.

In other hands this premise might have made a wonderful jumping-off point for a black comedy; but Letts’s dramatic vision is too dark for humor. Rather he shows us, in two relentless acts, how this houseful of feral half-wits turn on each other. The catalyst is Killer Joe: in Pinter-esque fashion he moves in with the family and demands sexual favors from the virginal Dottie as a retainer for his services. Naturally, in Letts’s dark universe, no one consults Dottie about this, and her first encounter with Killer Joe ends in what is essentially rape.

Letts allows no glimmer of hope to flash through this brutal work. He treats women in particular with a special, unspeakable harshness. At the play’s climax Killer Joe jams a chicken leg down the throat of one of the women and forces her, on pain of death, to fellate it. (Funny how at no point in this story, which is filled with verbal and physical threats, is any male character similarly sexually abused.) Some may argue that these disturbing scenes are part of the play’s dark worldview, and I would agree that they are. But when an artist’s vision is so contemptible, barbaric, and flat-out evil, the fact that he’s consistent is no virtue.

True, Killer Joe is no more violent than, say, Martin Scorsese’s films Taxi Driver and GoodFellas. Yet Killer Joe lacks the moral center, the spiritual yearning, that redeems Scorsese’s work. For all the blood and confusion of his world, there is still good and evil; in Letts’s world everybody’s a fuck, and nothing means anything.

Not that I think Letts really believes this. But like hundreds of hack writers before him, Letts adopted this worldview because it lent itself to the creation of a riveting story. No plot turn, however extreme, is denied you when your characters have no moral constraints to prevent them from killing their mothers, selling out their sisters, and raping innocent strangers.

This weakness for manipulation shows itself most clearly in the character of Killer Joe: though Paul Dillon’s performance is superb, he ends up splitting into three discrete Killer Joes to accommodate Letts’s story. Early on he’s the strong, silent hired gun, rock-solid and reliable, the real moral center of the play despite his unsavory profession. Later a second Killer Joe enters, one who’s not the least bit troubled by his own proposition that he get Dottie as a retainer. Still later a tenderhearted Joe arrives and declares his love for the same woman. Yet oddly enough this Joe appears only when he’s alone with Dottie. When others are on the scene, the warm Killer Joe is replaced by cold bastard Joe #2, who never fails to remind everyone his relationship with Dottie is just business, sexual servicing for services rendered.

Killer Joe’s convenient schizophrenia means he can be too cool to fluster one minute, raging angry the next, beaming with love a moment later, and little more than a rapist in the next second. Ultimately Killer Joe is not much more than a glorified spook house, well designed and scary but in the final analysis empty–troubling not because of the ideas it raises but because of the vulgar tricks it plays to keep the ride thrilling.

On the other hand, as empty experiences go Killer Joe was much preferable to Wysiwyg’s painfully bland, unevenly performed one-act Domino Courts. I drove an hour through intense end-of-the-weekend returning-from-Wisconsin traffic to see this show, and frankly I enjoyed waiting in line at the tollbooth more than I did watching Domino Courts.

Part of the problem is that William Hauptman’s play, long on talk and very short on action, never really gets around to answering the “who cares?” question. Set in Oklahoma at the tail end of the Depression, it concerns a pair of bank-robbing gangsters, Floyd and Roy, who have been reunited after four years. Over the course of this slow-moving hour-long play we learn that their glory days were not really so glorious–Roy remembers the time on the road as quite lonely–and that neither man has done well recently. I suppose Hauptman wants us to feel empathy, even pity for this pair of losers; he never really gives us a reason to care about them, though.

Nor does director Bill Endsley’s cast of four do much to mask the play’s faults. In fact the performances–which range from almost-good-enough to way-too-loud (someone please tell David Myers you don’t have to play to the upper balcony when the theater doesn’t have a sixth row)–expose the script’s every false moment and forced joke.

Still, Domino Court is a damn sight better than Wysiwyg’s last production, the gassy and pretentious Pocket Full of Posies, though this effort doesn’t come up to their auspicious first production, Better Days.