'The Killer': Theater Review

"The Killer"
Michael Shannon's superb performance and Darko Tresnjak's atmospheric staging bring this problematic play to compelling life.

Michael Shannon plays a man attempting to track down a serial killer in Eugene Ionesco's rarely seen dark comedy.

Theater for a New Audience has unearthed a true theatrical rarity in the form of The Killer, Eugene Ionesco’s 1958 epic play that has not been given a major New York production since its 1960 Off-Broadway premiere. Despite his frequently menacing onscreen persona, the brilliant Michael Shannon plays not the title role but rather Berenger, an everyman who finds himself searching for a mysterious killer who’s systematically murdering the residents of a modern utopian community. The character would later reappear, in varying forms, in such subsequent works by the playwright as A Stroll in the Air, Exit the King and Rhinoceros.

Berenger is introduced to the “radiant city” by its architect (Robert Stanton), perpetually distracted by the constantly ringing phone he keeps in his jacket pocket. Marked by gorgeous architecture and beautiful gardens that are bathed in perpetual sunniness, the community does have a serious downside in the form of a serial killer who for years has been systematically murdering its inhabitants by drowning them in a large lagoon.

“In spite of its name, it’s not a very happy area,” declares the disillusioned Berenger.

Retreating to his dilapidated, overstuffed apartment, Berenger becomes determined to track down the killer after Dennie (Stephanie Bunch), the architect’s beautiful secretary to whom he was instantly enamored, becomes one of his victims. Aided by clues provided by his sickly, somewhat shady friend Edward (Paul Sparks), he eventually comes into contact with the physically unprepossessing madman and attempts to persuade him to cease his murderous activities with a lengthy, anguished monologue, incorporating a wide variety of philosophical arguments, that is chillingly met with bursts of mocking laughter.

It’s easy to see why the play has lapsed into relative obscurity. Despite its potent themes of the meaninglessness of life and the inevitability of death, it’s a digressive, relentlessly talky affair that often feels like a slog during the course of its three-hour running time. But it does have potent elements and several gripping scenes, most notably the encounter between Berenger and Edward that ultimately comes to resemble an existential vaudeville comedy routine, and the climactic monologue that is delivered by Shannon with compelling emotional and verbal dexterity. Far less effective is the segment depicting a political rally held by the Marxist philosophy-spouting Ma Piper (Kristine Nielsen) and her goose-stepping followers.

Director Darko Tresnjak (a Tony nominee this year for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) has provided a gripping, expressionistic staging enlivened by Jane Shaw’s ambient sound design and music, Matthew Richards’ starkly geometric lighting design and Suttirat Larlarb’s striking sets featuring turntables that accentuate the futility of Berenger’s quest by frequently depicting him literally walking in place.

Reprising the role that he previously performed in a 1998 production by his Chicago-based A Red Orchid theater company, Shannon delivers a consistently compelling performance marked by doses of antic humor. Also superb is his frequent acting collaborator Sparks (Mud, Boardwalk Empire), cutting a haunting figure as the mysterious Edward who sports a deathly pallor and Berenger initially suspects of being the killer himself.

Marked by the playwright’s wide-ranging intellectual musings and philosophical arguments, The Killer, while not exactly a lost masterpiece, is a fascinating curiosity that, despite its turgid excesses, well deserves this exhumation. Presented in veteran theater critic Michael Feingold’s highly accessible translation, it’s a gripping theatrical experience that is not easily forgotten.  

Cast: Brendan Averett, Stephanie Bunch, Benjamin Cole, Liam Craig, Eric Folks, Jonathan Hooks, Vadim Krol, Kathleen Longazel, Kristine Nielsen, Anastasia Olowin, Frank Paiva, Gregor Paslawsky, Ryan Quinn, James Rees, Michael Shannon, Noble Shropshire, Paul Sparks, Robert Stanton, Gordon Tashjian, Quinn Warren, Ariel Zuckerman

Playwright: Eugene Ionesco

Translator: Michael Feingold

Director: Darko Tresnjak

Set and costume designer: Suttirat Larlarb

Lighting designer: Matthew Richards

Music and sound designer: Jane Shaw

Presented by Theatre for a New Audience