Bouncing boobs, bobbing peckers, and even the odd butthole all make featured appearances in Killer Joe. Tracy Letts' breakthrough play is pure pulp — a Texas trailer park noir about life behind the aluminum curtain, in a land of narrowing opportunity where thrills are cheap and life is cheaper.
Chris Smith's mom stole his coke, right? It was a lot. He was going to sell that coke, see? And, you know, responsibly get his life back in order, only for real this time, not like that time he tried to start a bunny farm but neglected the poor rabbits, and they got rabies and tore each other apart like some kind of sick drive-in monster movie come to life. Metaphor alert. Now Chris (played with impressive restraint by Luke Conner) owes 6G to some really bad dudes, and Ansel Smith, Chris' no-account daddy (nicely rendered by Daniel Pound) — says he can't help. It's not like Ansel and his his sex-addicted wife (who's not Chris' mom) ever had more than $1,000 at any one time. So these two broke, broken, and helpless manchildren get high as hell underneath the Confederate flag in a convincingly squalid trailer, watch some shit TV, and concoct a plan to murder Chris' mama for not very much insurance money.
Enter Killer Joe, a polite, organized, thoroughly corrupt police detective wearing a black hat. He'll do the job for $25,000, non-negotiable.
Joe's a classic Western trope: the bad, possibly evil SOB who becomes almost heroic now and then because he lives by a personal code that very occasionally puts him on the right side of things. He's a direct man who means what he says and says only what needs be said. He's also Letts' perverse answer to Tennessee Williams' famous Gentleman Caller, and when the Smiths can't make the downpayment, Joe says he'll take a retainer — Chris' virgin sister Dottie. What follows is sick romance, rape, and horror interrupted and occasionally enhanced by buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The drama climaxes too literally with a scene of humiliation, abuse, and shaming so graphic and severe it threatens to make the play every bit as horrible as the dark world it aims to illuminate.
Killer Joe is a grotesque, trigger-laden, exploitive, and genuinely poetic fable of limited horizons playing out in the vast flatness of Texas. It's a Libertarian paradise where radical self-interest neutralizes the blessings of liberty like chemtrails neutralize, I dunno — something or other. It's a liminal place where characters dream small and fail epically. Speaking of epic ...
Annie Freres, notable for performances in Mama Mia! and Rock of Ages at Playhouse on the Square, proves that her acting chops are just as finely developed as her "Jesus Christ" pipes. As Sharla Smith, she's often naked and so emotionally honest in the play's closing scenes, the most stoic observers may find themselves watching through laced fingers. Mersadies Burch is a similarly compelling Dottie, the childlike somnambulist at the heart of Letts' nightmare.
But what about the killer?
There's color missing from Don McCarrens' one (admittedly perfect) note performance as Joe, but he somehow manages to get the job done just fine in black and white. Whether he's laying out the terms of his agreement or force-feeding a villain no worse than him (save for lack of a bullshit code), McCarrens is never anything short of credible.
Adult content warnings aren't bullshit. Dirty words and basic nudity are only the tip of an icky, disturbing, weirdly riveting iceberg.
New Moon Theatre Company presents Killer Joe at TheatreWorks through May 28th. Newmoontheatre.org