Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts gives us a gritty and unsparing look at what happens when bad plans go awry for bad people.
Here's what comes at us in the first five minutes of "Killer Joe:" A trashy vixen stumbles onstage wearing only a short T-shirt; a son and dad smoke reefer as they squint at a crummy little TV; a sleepwalking daughter meekly suggests that "killing mom would be a good idea." Ah, the classics.
Playwright Tracy Letts plops us into the rancid laps of the Smith family with "Killer Joe," being staged by Theatre Pro Rata at the new Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul. The play is a brass-knuckles look at the consequences of what happens when bad things happen to bad people. No, not just bad people; stupid, reckless hicks who dabble in drugs, sex, guns and murder.
Son Chris Smith floats the idea of killing his mother (Ansel Smith's ex-wife) for the insurance money. Ansel and his new wife, Sharla, agree and they engage Joe Cooper, a Dallas cop who moonlights as a contract killer. Lacking an earnest payment, the evil threesome agrees when Joe suggests he take 20-year-old Dottie, an innocent waif, as a sexual retainer. Things unravel into brutality, blood and a bit of vengeance that tests the boundaries of what you can do with a chicken bone. That's as much of a hint as you get.
What makes watching "Killer Joe" fun -- besides the depravity -- is knowing that this is the prototype of Letts' bad-folks oeuvre. His play "Bug" featured coked-out freaks in a seedy motel, and the playwright is currently represented on Broadway with his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning "August: Osage County," another peek into his dark southwestern roots. His representation of dysfunction calls to mind Sam Shepard ("A Lie of the Mind") and Martin McDonagh ("Beauty Queen of Leenane"). He is swift in exposition and unsparing in shock value.
Pro Rata doesn't shy from the mayhem. Zach Curtis' Joe abuses Katherine Kupiecki's Sharla with jagged impunity. Sam Landman shuffles with gruff apathy as Ansel, and Kupiecki -- with apologies -- looks perfect as skanky Sharla. Perhaps the most affecting portrayal is Katie Willer's sweetly vacuous Dottie.
None of these fine performances, though, leaves us breathless. Curtis, given the meatiest opportunity, has a demeanor that is a click short of the icky charisma and menace we want from Joe. Similarly, director Carin Bratlie's deliberate pace too often lets tension leak out of the seams.
Still, when the script gets ugly, Bratlie (who also designed a wonderfully ratty, littered and cramped trailer-house interior) is unafraid to go for the jugular. That makes "Killer Joe" worth the trouble.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299