Killer Joe wastes no time introducing us to the grisly, tawdry mess of a crass, barely working-class Texas family that’s imploding under the duress of debt and desperation. Chris arrives at his father’s house in the middle of the night, and his stepmother Sharla answers the door partially naked. He’s in dire straits because his mother stole cocaine he needed to sell in order to pay off his drug debts. He wants to hire a hit man to kill her so the rest of the family can collect and share an insurance settlement, which works as a perverse financial planning/revenge scheme in this darkly humorous work at AllWays Lounge and Theatre.
The entire play takes place in a joint kitchen/living room, a bleak space framed by cheap wood paneling in John Grimsley’s effective set. It’s Ansel’s (Dane Rhodes) house, where he lives with Sharla (Andrea Watson) and his daughter from his first marriage, Dottie (Lucy Faust), who seems naive and reclusive or perhaps mentally challenged. Rhodes is brilliant and very comfortable in the skin of a working class stiff who is very aware of his limitations and just smart enough to get by. Faust is excellent as the extremely childlike ingenue who somehow has managed to avoid the brunt of the malice surrounding her.
Chris talks Ansel into hiring a hit man, but they immediately fail to keep their plan a secret from Dottie in a tipoff to how things will go. They enlist a policeman, Joe Cooper (James Howard Wright), to handle the job even though they can’t afford his price. Joe is entirely professional about moonlighting as a contract killer, and he’s far shrewder than his clients. Unfortunately, Wright doesn’t project the calm menace the role demands. His demeanor is too soft and, though he looks the part, he doesn’t project the forceful personality of the man who takes over the family.
Playwright Tracy Letts crafted a tight crime thriller that was adapted into a 2011 film of the same name (starring Matthew McConaughey as Joe). But the drama also is a dreary portrait of an American family in crisis. Ansel wears a grubby T-shirt with an American flag on it, and he almost always has a beer in his hand. A small TV often is on, blaring car races and cartoons. When things fall apart, it’s Joe who summons the group around the dinner table to dine as a family (on a meal of fried chicken from a fast food chain). In a bizarre moment of calm, he asks who wants to say grace.
Under Ben Clement’s direction the cast delivers many haunting and comic moments. A fight scene in Act 2 goes too long and struggles to maintain a convincing sense of chaos. The almost cartoonish level of violence is startling at times and pushes the play to be more a pulpy crime thriller than a tragedy. The show is memorably gritty, often funny and, the destruction the family brings upon itself gives the work a perverse sense of “traditional values” and an absurdly dark and ambiguous element of hope.
Thru July 27
8 p.m. Thu.-Sat.
AllWays Lounge and Theatre, 2240 St. Claude Ave., (504) 218-5778, for tickets call (504) 758-5590