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Almost 25 years old, Tracy Letts’ first play is worth a revisit just now, if for no other reason than Donald Trump’s reported claim (in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury) that “white trash” are “people like me, only they’re poor.” Letts’ no-holds-barred portrayal of a Texas trailer park family as dysfunctional, dumb and wholly without scruples offers a crazed snapshot of a mentality with which the president allegedly claims kinship.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the production at London’s Trafalgar Studios — a theater with a reputation for high-energy interpretations of dark-hued pieces — doesn’t deliver the requisite impact this time around. Capturing only some of Killer Joe‘s dark humor and creeping unease, this staging doesn’t exercise anything like the stranglehold that it might. And the chief problem is its above-the-title star, who fails to convince as one of modern theater’s most unique villains.
The plot is pure pulp fiction. Small-time drug dealer Chris Smith (Adam Gillen) is deep in debt to the wrong people and justifiably in fear for his life. His solution: murder his mother, Adele, and collect her life insurance. After all, she’s just kicked him out, so in his tiny mind she obviously deserves to die. Chris wins the support of his father, Ansel (Steffan Rhodri), who has remarried and is no fan of his ex. And together they enlist Joe Cooper (Orlando Bloom), a police detective that moonlights as a contract killer, to do the deed.
Designer Grace Smart’s set certainly puts the trash in the trailer — dominating the stage, the Smith residence is a ramshackle tangle of beer cans, scattered magazines and assorted junk, with a constantly buzzing TV as its centerpiece. The sound of barking dogs in the yard suggests neighborhood chaos, over which rolling thunder imposes the timber of Gothic horror that the dimwitted duo inadvertently invites into their home.
Chris; his father; and stepmother, Sharla (Neve McIntosh), are individuals of no merit whatsoever. Chris is quite literally a red-faced redneck, a desperate, feral young man in a constant state of apoplexy who spews words with moronic abandon. His father is both a dolt and coward, who treats his wife like a servant and responds more energetically to the TV than to any of the actual drama and mayhem in front of his nose. Sharla’s brazen nakedness when opening the front door to Chris at the beginning of the play may have an amusing justification (“I didn’t know it was you” suggests that she’s happy to be full frontal for strangers) but the nonchalant sexuality hints at later treachery.
Without the advance payment for the hit, Chris and Ansel accept Joe’s suggestion that he take Chris’ younger sister Dottie (Sophie Cookson) as a “retainer.” As the two men agree to pimp their kin, Ansel asserting that it “just might do her some good,” any possibility of redemption surely disappears. Incidentally, such commodification of women by men is another way in which Letts’ scenario feels suddenly apposite.
The key relationship of the play is actually between Joe and Dottie. The latter is said to be 20 but seems younger, a strange, unconvincing combination of innocence and arrested development, with a habit for sleepwalking; she perversely sees in Joe something akin to a white knight. As for the killer himself, he’s possibly mad, definitely evil, yet despite his crude transaction — and moving into the trailer to take his prize — he appears to have feelings for the girl. Their surprising rapport raises the stakes when, predictably, Chris’ plan goes south.
Contemporary resonance aside, the play is no more or less than a fruity and shocking black comedy, with a thriller’s motor, whose depiction of its underclass arguably panders to prejudice; there’s far more insight into family dysfunction in Letts’ later hit August, Osage County and many of Sam Shepard’s plays. But it can be a rollicking ride, as Letts cranks up the tension toward a confrontation between Joe and the Smiths that is best known for the cop’s vicious and twisted use of a Kentucky Fried Chicken drumstick on one of his victims.
While director Simon Smith does mine the entertaining mix of tension and hysteria in the climax, the production feels like it’s spinning its wheels for much of the evening. Though game (not least for the nudity and at times emotionally challenging violence), none of the British cast seems particularly comfortable with the Texan milieu, or quite disappears into his or her character — save for Gillen, who has something of Ben Foster’s oddly fascinating presence and whose risky, over-the-top performance earns respect, at least, for its daring. Rhodri could be funnier; McIntosh trashier; and Cookson struggles with a difficult, underwritten role.
It’s Bloom who appears to be the most self-conscious. Joe is meant to be immediately unnerving, his impeccable manners — at odds with his present company — only making him all the more creepy and threatening.
Some languidly dangerous performers have played the character, such as Scott Glenn onstage and a positively terrifying Matthew McConaughey in William Friedkin’s film adaptation. When Bloom enters he is certainly striking — physically imposing, cowboy-hatted, swaggeringly confident. But the body language, with its chest-pumping strut and perpetually knitted brow, is forced, inauthentic; fatally, the actor always seems to have one eye on the audience. And without a lethal Joe, the play can only be half-cocked.
Venue: Trafalgar Studios, London
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Sophie Cookson, Adam Gillen, Neve McIntosh, Steffan Rhodri
Director: Simon Evans
Playwright: Tracy Letts
Set and costume designer: Grace Smart
Lighting designer: Richard Howell
Music and sound designer: Edward Lewis
Presented by Emily Dobbs Productions, Empire Street Productions
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