Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Nobody gives a damn about a writer or his problems except another writer. –Harold Ross, original editor of the New Yorker.

The time is the mid-1950s. The scene is a seedy boardinghouse. Somewhere in the background a saxophone wails its lonely complaint about the human condition. Hacking away at his typewriter is Charles Blackwell, a prolific dime novelist trying to force an ending to his latest gaudy thriller, The Killer Inside Me. Things are not going well for Blackwell. It’s hot. He tears up everything he writes. The boarders are annoying him. The landlady keeps dropping in, trying to seduce him, asking him to kill her husband, that sort of thing. It’s hard to concentrate. Hell, who could write with that godawful saxophone playing in the background all the time?

Well, you don’t need a neon sign blinking outside your hotel window to figure out that there’s something artistically contrived about this boardinghouse milieu. That is, every character is a caricature, every situation a cliche, and, in all respects, life at the boardinghouse is the spitting image of the world inside one of Blackwell’s novels. At first I didn’t get the point. I mean, sure, life and art overlap. So what? And I suppose it’s sort of clever and interesting to have a novelist living among the very type of characters he’s unsuccessfully manipulating in his novel. And, in an obvious denouement, all Blackwell has to do is wake up to that realization and let the world around him write an ending to his novel. Fine, but like I said, what’s the point?

Walking home from the theater, I was nagged by the suspicion that Killers was about something, only I didn’t know what. Then when I got home, I read the program notes. You know, program notes are really a marvelous thing. They can reveal explicitly everything the playwright was unable to express through his art. In this case, playwright John Olive maintains that Killers is a “fantasy about murder and passion and death. About writing. About music. And about the exultation of pain.”

Now I get it. I was confused by the red herring of my own expectations. I expected Killers to be a metaphor that, decoded, would grant me some greater understanding of life and human nature. But what it really is is simply what it is: a lionization of the writer as the cynical tough guy, the poker-faced spy, the stoic loner, the rugged individualist who’ll use anyone and anything in order to create his art. As the landlady says, just before Blackwell walks out the door with his finished manuscript tucked under his arm, “You suck on people like a wino sucks on a bottle.”

It seems to me that you can take this play two ways. You can have a good laugh if you perceive it as a satire of Norman Mailer, Mickey Spillane, or any number of overweight macho writers. Or you can take it seriously, in which case it helps if you fancy yourself a writer. Then you can revel in the character of Blackwell the rogue. But, if you’re not a writer, you might be forced to a more cynical interpretation, and hear only the voice of the playwright as he whines: Pity me, envy me, respect me. I’m a writer. I deserve it.

The peculiar thing about the Steppenwolf production, under Randall Arney’s direction, is that it doesn’t cue the audience toward any one response. It’s sometimes funny , sometimes serious, and many times inscrutably moot. Overall, the acting has the consistent edge of caricature. You very much feel that what you’re witnessing isn’t realism, but rather a strange pastiche of B movies and pulp novels. But quite often I didn’t know what to think, as if I were examining a pet rock and wondering, what’s it do? For instance, Robert Breuler (who plays Blackwell) now and then fixes another character with an intense, sidelong stare. Is he reading their minds? Is he doing his Rod Steiger impression? Is he imagining what they look like in their underwear?

But, to credit Breuler, he gives an imposing performance. Although I couldn’t quite figure out what he was looking at out of the corner of his eye, I never got the impression that he was unsure himself. And that’s a crucial difference. His portrait of Blackwell is obviously a stereotype, and intended to be, but Breuler plays it straight, never overtly inviting satire or ridicule.

Far and away the best performance, however, is given by Jim True. True plays Lou, what Warren Zevon would term “an excitable boy.” Lou’s one of the boarders. He’s very high-strung, hair-trigger crazy. He’s also desperately broke and behind in his rent; he convulsively cringes every time the landlady reminds him to be “out by Friday.” As True plays him, Lou turns out to be the only genuinely unpredictable character in the play, the only unmarked card in a stacked deck. This contributes immeasurably to playwright John Olive’s otherwise flaccid plot. That is, all along you know someone’s going to get wasted, and you can see the violence slowly building to a head, but it takes True running in like Tony Perkins with a baseball bat to make you jump up in your seat.

Laurie Metcalf plays Wanda, the landlady who tries to seduce Blackwell. She has some very comic moments, but her caricature is so extreme that, well, Wanda’s hatred for her husband reads like she’s trying to swallow down her vomit every time she’s around him. I felt like Wanda herself got swallowed by Metcalf’s acting. Wanda’s husband, played by Ted Levine, comes off a little weird himself. Levine picks up clues in the script–unfortunately undeveloped by the playwright–and fashions the husband into what looks very much like a redneck S and M homosexual. Nathan Davis (as Earl) gives a credible performance as a shell-shocked old geezer who really doesn’t have much of a role in the play at all. I got the feeling that it was a bad day for Earl when Olive edited his play.

Which brings up a point. Killers seems as if it’s been overedited, underwritten, and, as a last resort, jury-rigged. Those illuminating program notes also reveal that Olive had this play in his bottom drawer for ten years, pulling it out only when Actors Theatre of Louisville handed him a commission. Originally, the play was about poet Charles Bukowski, but in the rewrite Olive switched to pulp novelist Jim Thompson as a model for Charles Blackwell. That’s a radical change. I don’t know if the original script had more to it than a 50s motif and a celebration of the writer-as-demigod, but if so, something’s missing now. Granted, Steppenwolf sure knows how to spruce it up and serve it with a flourish, but leftovers are leftovers.