By evening's end, the mayhem in Tracy Letts' grim 1993 comedy Killer Joe is downright cacophonous. Yet the current St. Louis Actors' Studio staging is most effective when it is most quiet. Every time Joe Cooper, the menacing title character, keeps his mouth shut, the audience is taut with expectation. His baleful pauses are more threatening than any words he utters. Joe is a slow fuse inching its way toward a keg filled with gunpowder. We know that when the connection is made, there's going to be a ferocious and very lethal explosion.
But before we meet Killer Joe, we are introduced to the Smith clan. (There's an all-American surname for you.) The Smiths are trailer-park trash. Not the creepy kind that inhabit movies like Boys Don't Cry; the loopy Ansel Smith and his level-headed wife Sharla are more like Fred and Wilma Flintstone. They're cartoon characters. Even when they plot the murder of Ansel's ex- wife Adele, they're straight from (X-rated) Looney Tunes. Letts, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for August: Osage County, has claimed inspiration from the likes of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. Maybe so, but the hapless Smiths of Texas are more akin to Jimmy Breslin's gang that couldn't shoot straight than to the inhabitants of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
Murder, of course, is more easily fantasized than executed. Enter Killer Joe, a local police officer who moonlights as an assassin. But here's the rub: Joe requires a $25,000 deposit; the Smiths won't have any money until Adele's insurance policy pays off. The impending murder is at an impasse — until Joe eyes the nubile Dottie, Ansel's dotty, sleepwalking, virginal daughter, who will serve quite nicely, thank you, as a retainer for Joe's services.
By now we're only midway through Act One, and any more plot than this you don't want to know. What you should know is that, despite its similarities to drearier and often more self-conscious plays (cf. Sam Shepard and David Mamet), Killer Joe has an oddball rawness and sensuality that is all its own. It can be boisterously, crudely funny, then turn on a dime and have you holding your breath in suspense.
The cast is uniformly terrific. As the clueless family patriarch, Larry Dell sets the evening's daffy tone. This amiable dunce is so likable that we enter the play's twisted universe through his good nature. Missy Miller's no-nonsense wife Sharla is just the opposite. Her matter-of-fact demeanor portends the blackness in black comedy. James E. Slover plays Chris, the son whose financial straits trigger the play's spiraling events. Slover's stark, angular face is like a death mask that has already been cast. His manic desperation hovers over the evening as an eerie reminder that beyond the comedy, something terrible is looming.
As cowboy killer Joe, Jason Cannon doesn't need a horse to stand tall in the saddle. From his first stealthy entrance into the Smiths' trailer home in his Stetson hat and sleek Australian duster, Joe commands our attention. Cannon has always appreciated the effect of the extra beat, and he uses that knowledge to great effect here. But most intriguing of all is Rachel Fenton as the perplexingly unpredictable daughter. Dottie is the one character we care for, the only Smith we laugh with rather than at. Fenton keeps us constantly off-balance. The fear in her eyes is offset by the fearlessness of her actions. Fenton's sensitive portrayal is a beautiful construct of contradictions.
Milton Zoth has directed Killer Joe at the brisk clip the piece requires. What he has not done is to establish the family television set as an integral part of the story. To Letts the tube is a hypnotic corrosion that paralyzes our lives. Here it's merely an ineffectual stage effect. Also, the violence at the play's climax is mostly a mess. In the final minutes, the production implodes. Too bad, because for most of its idiosyncratic journey this Killer Joe delivers deliciously wicked theater. That a play whose actions are mired in amorality can be so improbably entertaining — now, there's wonder for you.