Reviewed by Katherine Karlson
Imagine the cursed fate of the House of Atreus unfolds in a dismal Texas trailer park, and you have some inkling of the murder, mayhem and vicious stupidity on offer in the riveting production of Killer Joe that opened Feb. 14 at Binghamton’s KNOW Theatre. The first play by Tracy Letts of August: Osage County fame is not for the easily shocked, but the sordid tale is brilliantly presented in all its gritty glory thanks to a thoroughly professional cast of talented actors. Director Tim Gleason has brought out the nuanced and often surreal black comedy in a play that sometimes screams “over-the-top” in mumbles, whispers and throwaway lines.
The two great motivators of almost all human behavior — greed and fear — immediately take center stage and dominate the entire play, making us unable to stop watching in ever-greater horror the accumulating outrages the Smith family members perpetrate on each other. John Reidan Pitaressi ably fleshes out loser son Chris, who has a nasty drug debt to pay and an even nastier solution: kill the never-seen Momma for her insurance money. The dim-witted father and Momma’s ex-hubby, whom Joe Hoffmann portrays with glassy-eyed brilliance, soon buys into the scheme. Chris’s plan is to hire a bent police detective named “Killer” Joe Cooper, who will carry out the dastardly deed for a share of the insurance payout. What could possibly go wrong?
We soon meet the two Smith women: sluttish spouse and stepmother Sharla and the backward sister, Dottie. Brenda Darcy and Anna Simek, respectively, create these female polar opposites with depth and emotion. Neither is left unscathed when Killer Joe finally appears to seal the deal in a way that none of this clueless clan expects.
Jeff Tagliaferro is the title character and a more gentlemanly snake in human skin you could not wish for. Most actors prefer playing villains to heroes because those flawed individuals are more complex and interesting, and Killer Joe fits that bill. He is all business as he sets down the terms of his contract to dispatch Momma, but a deal with the devil always has a catch. In this case, it is Dottie who, like Iphigenia, is offered up as the literal virgin sacrifice. In one of the typical understatements that close out most scenes, her father suggests that “you know, it might just do her some good.”
Joe Cooper is complex and confusing. He brings flowers and pulls out her chair when he comes to dine with Dottie but forces himself upon her after they eat. He seems the sanest and most decent of this miserable lot, but that is only because he knows exactly what he is: a ruthless machine. Killer Joe doesn’t waver from his appointed task, even when Chris tries to call off the hit. Tagliaferro is frighteningly good as he combines the affection and courtesy his character shows Dottie with a brutal, sadistic streak as Joe brutalizes Sharla to confess her part in the insurance double-cross.
The sense that an ancient Greek tragedy is unfolding also appears in the strong emotional bond between Chris and Dottie. He considers his sister the best of the bad lot and wants to escape with her from the overwhelming chaos his decision has unleashed.
While the stage set, with its decrepit furnishings and piles of kitchen trash, is the perfect mirror of the human refuse who live inside, Letts’ language is tight and tidy, and filled with final lines that make you guffaw with embarrassed laughter. The writing is sparse and spectacular, and the actors make each line sparkle with meaning even when muttered or screamed.
Killer Joe contains frontal nudity, gunshots, extreme violence and aggressive sexual violence; Aeschylus would have loved it. It won’t be the easiest play to watch, but neither was the Oresteia.
IF YOU GO: KNOW Theater, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton, ends its run of Killer Joe this weekend. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Feb. 28 and 29) and 3 p.m. Sunday (March 1). Performances have been selling out, so move quickly. Tickets are $25 (seniors, $20; students, $15). Call 724-4341 or visit knowtheatre.org.