Killer Joe

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Audiences with a taste for pitch-dark comedy will get their fill of a deliciously unsettling feast in Killer Joe, the launch production of the aptly named new theater company SeeNoSun. Killer Joe has a pedigree as the first play written by Tracy Letts, he whose penchant for disturbing dramas of family dysfunction powered his Pulizer Prize–winning August: Osage County. Killer Joe epitomizes that time-honored genre where horror and hilarity converge. As adroitly directed by Michael Wright and played to the hilt by a cracker-jack cast, Killer Joe generates shocked gasps and guffaws in equal measure with the greatest of unease.

I enjoyed its enormity enormously. The word enormity (when used with etymological precision to mean outrageous immorality) accurately sums up Killer Joe’s twisted story line and (four of its five) characters. All of which makes Killer Joe fascinating, horrifying, and comic all at once.

The play is set in Dallas and takes place inside a trailer, the sort referred to in the slur white trailer trash. True to that epithet, this place is home to the oafish big bubba Ansel Smith (William Aitken); his scheming second wife Sharla (Mallory Shear); and the sweet but dim Dottie (Jennifer Osborn), his twenty-something daughter by his first wife. The action jump-starts when Dottie’s older brother, the desperately deluded Chris (Matthew Marcus)—who lives with their mother, Adele—barges in with a cockamamie plan to hire a killer to do in Adele in order to collect on her life insurance policy.

These unhinged down-and-outs all have a moral screw loose, and Letts never lets us forget it, even as he tickles us with their turpitude. Thus we’re thrust into that discombobulatingly amusing and bizarro zone that writers like Joe Orton and Martin McDonagh have honed on stage: outrageous amorality with a master playwright’s crafty moral frame all around it. Add to that a quirky sense of humor, and the experience of watching such a play is like the guilty pleasure of rubbernecking at a crash on the highway, except the wreck is a clown car from which funny jokesters keep popping.

The grotesque jesting escalates when Joe Cooper (Sun King Davis) shows up—a detective on the  police force who moonlights as a contract killer. He refuses Chris’s offer to wait to be paid after Adele is dead. Instead he requires a retainer up front against his cut of the payout—namely sexual access to the virgin Dottie, whom he swiftly beds.

Chris—who, feckless as he is, cares deeply about his sister—is now caught in a moral quandary. “Nothing’s worse than regret,” he says. “Not cancer, not being eaten by a shark, nothing.”

The on-point acting is thrilling to watch up close in the DC Arts Center black box, and the entire cast is excellent: Aitken’s lumpish Ansel, Marcus’s wired Chris, Shear’s double-dealing Sharia, Davis’s suave and scarey Killer Joe. But Jennifer Osborn stands out. I doubt Killer Joe would work as a play without a performance in the role of Dottie as nuanced and centered, as gritty and guileless, as Osborn’s. With effortlessness and simplicity, she captures  the center of attention every moment she’s on stage. Alone among the miscreant misfits in Letts’ cast of characters, Dottie is a locus of innocence—and Osborn keeps her in focus throughout the fracas till her stunning comeuppance at the end.

Osborn, doubling as Costume Designer, has picked out spot-on clothes; Lighting Designer Brian Allard gives visual jolts to the story; and the uncredited Sound Designer alarms with a vicious barking dog. The first row of seats goes unused, in order to accommodate the Smiths’ living room and working kitchen, so the space is even more intimate that usual. One can almost reach out and taste Food Wrangler Diane Freeman’s credible edibles.

Letts’s script is intense and tightly wound, rigged with jaw-dropping shocks, and plays like blazes in this small space. Letts’s screenplay for William Friedkin’s film version (starring Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe) closely follows the playscript, as I learned reading it after seeing SeeNoSun’s terrifically taut staging. But I approached the show  knowing no more of the plot than what I’ve just reported, and the unfolding story had me on the edge of my seat with tense anticipation. Though I’m glad I knew no more, I feel obliged to alert sensitive theatergoers that there is a troubling scene near the end—as was widely reported when the movie came out—when Killer Joe enacts his rage at Sharla’s deception in a forced simulated sex act. For a few moments there, the stage action is intentionally appalling, and Letts sends in no clowns.

SeeNoSun’s candor about such scenes is evident in its mission “to create a compelling theatrical experience that expands an understanding of the human condition by bringing provocative plays to life that explore the human monster and the unspeakable acts they commit.” Killer Joe is definitely on that message. And it’s a powerful knockout of a show.


Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Killer Joe plays through June 29, 2014, at the DC Arts Center – 2438 18th Street, NW, in Adams Morgan, in Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased online.