When is it OK to hate a child? When you're watching Maxwell Anderson's play The Bad Seed. This tale of an amoral nine-year-old who kills anyone and everyone who gets in her way makes the audience want to yell "kill the brat!" As we learn that little Rhoda was apparently born with no capacity for kindness or guilt, we may feel a twinge of sympathy for her, though.
But that twinge doesn't last long, as she sneaks her way through the onstage thriller, stealing and killing until her mother finally realizes the truth. Then, just as easily, the audience's sadism can turn to laughter. Rhoda's conversations with the one adult who knows all along just how rotten she is, a handyman named Leroy, are so cruel they veer into comedy. These exchanges probably inspired the line uttered by Rebecca De Mornay's character in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: "Don't fuck with me, retard. My version of the story will be better than yours."
Besides gleeful feelings of hatred and cruel humor, the Bad Seed audience will also feel pleasantly horrified. At one point, for instance, the adult characters in the play discuss how serial killers are created -- are they born or made? It's like watching a TV show that profiles the pre-teen Ted Bundy.
Stephanie Halper is the young actress playing Rhoda. Is she prepared to kill and then skip off into the next guilt-free scene? The play's director, Joe McKenna, says that he told Halper and her mother that "there's a possibility that the audience will boo her -- but that's a good thing." Surely they cannot hate her as much as audiences could hate the star of the 1993 film update of the story, The Good Son, which featured a boy killer: that bratty Macauley Culkin.