Killer Joe

at the Theatre

From the moment it opened, in August of 1993 in the Next Theatre’s closet-size experimental Next Lab space, Killer Joe has intrigued me. After an eight-month run in Chicago, the show was moved pretty much intact to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it won a “Scotsman Fringe First” award. It then leaped back across the Atlantic to New York, where it played 13 weeks off-Broadway, then back to Great Britain, where it was first performed at a respectable fringe theater in London before moving to the more mainstream West End. Then it was back to New York in October of 1998 for a nine-month run off-Broadway at the SoHo Playhouse. Wilson Milam, the original director, staged all these shows, but there have also been numerous others, enough to qualify Killer Joe as an international hit.

The play put actor-playwright Tracy Letts on the map. In the six and a half years since it opened, Letts has been transformed from a talented but largely unknown Chicago-based performer into an internationally recognized playwright and Los Angeles-based actor with a list of credits–small roles on Seinfeld and The Drew Carey Show, a starring role in Steppenwolf’s Three Days of Rain–most actors would hire a contract killer to get.

But what I find most intriguing about the show is that at its core it’s crap, and mean-spirited crap at that. Letts’s characters are pure trailer-trash stereotypes. Dad is a fat, hairy slob who believes no ensemble is complete without a grease-stained dago T. Mom is a foulmouthed, frizzy-haired slut; her entrance at the top of the show, when she answers the door naked from the waist down, pubic hair there for all to see, pretty much sets a tone of down-and-dirty sensationalism for the whole piece. The son is an imbecile of the Jethro Bodine variety, though not nearly as charming or comical. And sis is the stuff of a thousand traveling-salesman jokes: a sweet, ripe, sexually innocent, slow-witted beauty, Dottie is utterly unprotected by the men in her family (in fact the playwright hints that each of them in his time has sexually molested her).

These four losers become enmeshed in a strictly B-movie plot. There’s a nice, fat insurance policy on an unseen and unliked grandmother and a shady deal, cut by Dad and the brother and hit man Killer Joe, whereby Joe will forgo his usual prepayment in return for Dottie’s sexual favors. Of course Letts is too clever to spell all this out from the get-go. Instead he allows his characters’ full moral turpitude to emerge slowly as he cuts from one shocking scene to another. And Letts’s story does contain a couple of surprising twists, though they’re nothing compared to those in a really twisty film thriller like Wild Things.

So why has this play been so popular? That’s the question that’s bedeviled me since 1993. I’m sure it helps that Milam is a strong, slick director who makes sure the production is always at least one beat ahead of the audience. I’m sure it’s also helped that he and Letts have consistently chosen strong, committed actors willing to give their all to their parts. As the play’s porcine patriarch, Marcus Nelson–the only actor remaining from the 1993 Chicago production–throws himself around the stage with so little concern for his own welfare I’m surprised he hasn’t broken a bone by now or sprained an ankle.

But we’ve seen dozens, maybe hundreds of well-directed and well-acted shows in Chicago over the years, and precious few have gone on to become hits in New York and London.

I think the real secret to this show’s success is the contempt it frees us to feel. At every turn Letts invites us to look down on his lower-class characters, who don’t know how to dress, eat, talk, or groom themselves. They live in dirty little trailers, leaving grease stains on the fridge and around the doorknobs. Unlike you and me, these people are pigs. They haven’t been “civilized” by soap and education and fashionable clothing. Little more than animals, they’re capable of anything. And because Letts’s characters belong to the only class of folks we hip, informed urbanites are allowed to hate–poor whites–we hate them with impunity.

Don’t believe me? Conduct the following thought experiment: Substitute any other ethnic group for Letts’s white-trash family and see if the show doesn’t feel a little icky and racist. How long do you think it would take Jesse Jackson, the NAACP, and a wave of righteous indignation to shut down a play about a marginally employed, slow-witted African-American father, his ho of a wife, and their nitwit son and mildly retarded sexpot daughter, united in a conspiracy to kill grandma for her money? Even if it weren’t shut down, word of mouth would be so brutal that market forces alone would kill such a play.

Here in Chicago our contempt is based on our own notions of class. But the brilliance of Killer Joe is that it crosses borders nicely. In New York the play would seem to be about all those scary, stupid, fat potato people out there in middle America, with their sloppy dialects and loose morals. In Great Britain the play would be about Yanks and what a nasty, brutish, stupid group of heathens we are. Hundreds of years from now, when we’ve gone to Mars, Martian colonists will roar with laughter at how awful we were back on polluted old earth.

Once we’re given permission to feel superior to Letts’s characters, he’s free to make them do all kinds of thrilling, nasty things onstage that audiences secretly want to see but feel guilty seeking out or condoning. Thus a sign in the lobby warning that the show contains nudity, violence, and adult language is more of a promise than a threat: Killer Joe is full of guilty pleasures. We get to laugh at Nelson’s pale white, sagging, hairy body the way we used to snicker at Chris Farley’s flesh. We get to see Amy Landecker’s bitch get what’s coming to her when she’s forced to fellate a chicken leg. And we get to tsk-tsk-tsk one minute about how everyone exploits the beautiful daughter (Julia Sobaski), then watch her slowly strip naked.

The wonder of Killer Joe is not that it’s done well but that it hasn’t done better. The play hasn’t been turned into a movie, for instance, nor has Letts become such a popular or prolific playwright that he would give up his acting career.

So how does the current show stack up against the 1993 production? For one thing the performances don’t seem as intense. Admittedly I caught this show in its next-to-last preview performance, and some of the play’s raggedy looseness might be attributable to preopening slackness. But not all of it. Unfortunately the cool, cruel, freakish Paul Dillon, the original Killer Joe, is not reprising his role. And the young, handsome Andrew Hawkes is too wholesome to be genuinely threatening. This is a particular problem when Joe forces himself on the dotty daughter. When Dillon’s Joe slithered over to Shawna Franks, who played Dottie in the original show, it made your flesh crawl. But when Hawkes sidles up to Sobaski they actually seem like a sweet couple, as if Joe might save Dottie from her beastly family. And this sense of a nascent romance short-circuits much of the threat of the first act.

It also hurts that the play is not being staged in the claustrophobic Next Lab space. A larger storefront theater makes the holes in Letts’s story more apparent and his characters more cartoonish. Yet Milam’s direction remains fairly tight, and his casting is strong. Landecker is especially fearless as the ultimate white-trash wife.

In other words the show’s still crap, just not quite as well-done. But then Killer Joe has been proving for the last several years that crap is what we want.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.