I had an experience on Friday night that I don't have very often. I walked out of a theatre at the end of a performance, shaking with disgust and rage.
Coalmine Theatre is currently staging Tracy Letts' 1993 play, KILLER JOE.
The actors: Madison Walsh, Matthew Edison, Matthew Gouveia, Paul Fauteux, Vivian Endicott-Douglas all do fine work, physically and emotionally. The play is very well directed by Peter Pasyk who cranks up the characters' despair, and the danger of their situation to terrifying effect. The set and lighting by Patrick Lavender work really well. Jenna McCutchen's costumes are appropriate, if a bit on the nose.
The play itself, alas, is ghastly. This is a great production of a singularly nasty, misogynistic piece of writing, rooted in textbook Southern Gothic territory, with not a cliche left unturned.
Letts wrote AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, the Pulitzer Prize winning play about a dysfunctional family with a drug addict matriarch. We're in similar territory here in terms of familial dysfunction, but with a whole lot less finesse and a lot more violence, sexual and otherwise.
KILLER JOE was Letts' first play. He wrote it when he was 25. The set up is not bad, some of the dialogue is pretty good, and occasionally, someone gives a good speech. It's not that the guy didn't show promise.
Letts claims to have been heavily influenced by pulp fiction noir when he wrote it. His plot owes a
debt to noir, and its characters to both David Mamet and Sam Sheppard.
His female characters here makes Mamet look like a guy at the vanguard of feminism. The women in KILLER JOE are a sloppy mash-up of tropes derived from violent porn and bad television crime
drama. I suspect if Letts had not won a major prize for a latter creation, this ugly, pointless little tome would never see the light of day.
The action is confined to the interior of a grimy trailer somewhere in Texas, complete with a junkyard dog outside, and and a big television inside. The dog barks a lot and the TV is usually on. The occupants of the trailer are the Smiths: father Ansel (Fauteux with a Duck Dynasty beard), step-mother Sharla (Madison Walsh oozing sexual agency), and Ansel's daughter from a previous marriage, Dottie (Vivien Endicott-Smith as a hot mess of a kid). The Smiths drink beer from a can, smoke weed and eat tuna casserole.
On a dark and stormy night (yes, really) Chris, Ansel's son from his previous marriage (a terrific Matthew Gouveia), arrives to borrow money. Sharla greets him at the door wearing a cropped t-shirt and nothing else. There's a good page of dialogue about her state of dishabille in the middle of the night, in her own home. Why the man of the house wasn't the one to answer the door at that hour is never discussed or explained. Can you say gratutious nudity for shock value?
Sharla takes her naked derriere off to bed, while Chris explains to his father, that his biological mother, the thieving, alcoholic Adele (who we never meet) has thrown him out of the house because he slammed her into the fridge, with reason, apparently. Adele, Chris claims, has purloined a stash of coke he was planning to sell to settle a debt with a drug dealer. Now he has no coke and no money, and the unhappy drug dealer wants him to settle up, stat, or else.
Chris and his father conspire to hire a contract killer, the Killer Joe of the title, to murder Adele, and collect on her life insurance policy, of which Dottie is the apparent beneficiary. How or why Chris and Ansel think they are going to get Dottie's money is one of the play's many mysteries of construction.
Chris would like to use his portion of the money to start a farm, somewhere he can grow dope and raise rabbits. He had a farm and rabbits once upon a time, but raising things requires thought, care and attention and the Smiths are not thoughtful, not careful, and not attentive. They are borderline feral, easily distracted, driven by impulse, and not especially bright. Their schemes do not go well, and this one is no exception.
Since all this machinating goes down in a trailer, which is an acoustically transparent domicile, both Dottie and Sharla are aware of the plans of the menfolk. Also Ansel tells Sharla, well, because, she's his wife. Sharla, it turns out later, has plans of her own.
Killer Joe is a corrupt cop, a sociopath with nice manners when he chooses, and a thing for little girls. Matthew Edison does a great job of showing us a tightly wound menace.
Since the Smiths can't furnish Joe with his usual cash upfront deposit, he takes their virginal daughter, Dottie, as a retainer. Is Dottie 20, as she initially tells Joe, or 12 as she says later?
Sharla psychologically grooms Dottie, the virgin, for her deflowering by suggesting she serve a salad and rolls with the casserole and wear a dress to dinner. Sharla's collection of penis photos (which turns up again later in a different context) make an initial appearance in this unsavory discourse.
Then Joe arrives with flowers, for their "date" and the family leave Dottie alone with him. Post-casserole, he forces Dottie to get the dress she has told Sharla, then Joe, that she didn't want to wear and put it on. First though, he has her strip naked and put the dress on with nothing under it. After that, he has her stick her hand down his pants. We get to watch this because, apparently, the playwright felt we needed to see both actresses frontally nude. No man takes his clothes off in the entire play, although a few turn up in their underwear. ( In fact, Mr. Edison did respond to a door being kicked opened by appearing buck naked near the end of the play, I have been reminded by the company's publicist. My apologies to Mr. Edison for overlooking this in my earlier report. No slight was intended to his performance or his person. My middle aged eyesight being what it is, perhaps I'm simply losing my ability to see certain things well at a distance, in a fairly dark room.)
After this sexual assault/courtship, Joe moves in with Dottie in the trailer. Why a police officer with a contract killing business on the side doesn't take her somewhere more comfortable for their assignations is never really dealt with. It does serve as a convenient plot devise in machinating the play's graphically violent end.
In an early monologue of Joe's, he's quite clear that he doesn't likes grown women, and doesn't trust them. He does quite enjoy dominating, sexually degrading and brutalizing them, as he viscerally demonstrates, as the play builds towards a bloody climax.
That particular scene is so physically violent I actually feared for the actress' safety. Watching Joe abuse Sharla is like being stuck in the Big Ears Teddy chair on date night at Jian Ghomeshi's place.
Please, don't anyone write me any long-winded comments on how Joe is a metaphor for the way the American state and its agents treat its disenfranchised. Tennessee Williams' 27 WAGON FULLS OF COTTON or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD or anything by Faulkner or Steinbeck does a much better job of that.
It's a pity COALMINE has squandered so much talent and effort on such a lousy, sexist play.
KILLER JOE continues at the Coalmine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, east of Coxwell Station, Tuesday to Sunday at 7:30 PM, until April 24th.