Theater Review - Domestic disturbance

Killer Joe a low-down, dirty thrill

Get in bed with the devil, sooner or later you’ll have to do some mattress dancing. So learns the Smith family when they invite Killer Joe Cooper into their Texas trailer. Actor’s Express offers a hilariously raunchy production of Killer Joe, complete with bloodshed and naked body parts. Killer Joe turns into something far more disturbing than an X-rated romp, but fortunately Actor’s Express keeps some of its excesses reined in.

In the dead of night, Chris (Nick Rhoton) barges into his dad’s filthy trailer in a bad part of Dallas. He’s deep in debt to drug dealers but, as he passes a joint to his father, Ansel (Larry Larson), Chris explains a possible solution that could benefit everyone. His mother, now divorced from Ansel, carries a high insurance policy, so Chris suggests they hire police detective and freelance assassin Killer Joe Cooper to knock her off. The proposal shocks no one, not even Chris’ ethereal yet innocent younger sister, Dottie (Ariel de Man).

Jeff Portell, his head seemingly inches from the ceiling of the set, makes an imposing Joe. Meeting Dottie, he proves both a Southern gentleman and an amoral murderer. He’s less agreeable with Chris and Ansel, refusing to do the hit “on spec” for a cut of the insurance money. But in lieu of getting his fee up front, he proposes that he take a “retainer” in the person of Dottie. Chris and Ansel consider whether they want the job done badly enough to make Dottie a kind of sacrificial virgin.

Director Jasson Minadakis smoothly negotiates the play’s hairpin turns from bumbling hilarity to uneasy seduction to unexpected brutality. Joe begins living in the trailer himself, and the Smiths’ domestic ties, tenuous to begin with, come undone. A family supper of beer and chicken from “K-Fry-C” simmers with barely contained violence.

Actor’s Express takes the same joy in Killer Joe’s squalor that other theaters would take in beautiful surroundings. Set designer Kat Conley lovingly applies aluminum foil to the TV antenna and litters the floor with beer cans, troll dolls and comic books. Surfaces are audibly sticky. And the costumes perfectly match the environment, from Larson’s smudged jockey shorts to Rhoton’s lank hair.

If playwright Tracy Letts flirts with Southern condescension, Minadakis and his cast avoid molasses-thick stereotyping. Rhoton, for instance, nails Chris as a weasely screwup, yet finds the smidgen of decency within the drawling loser. The actors, all familiar Atlanta faces who’ve never worked at the Express before, take Letts’ creation seriously, despite their sordid behavior and dialogue like, “You’d fuck a snake if you could hold its head.” They’re not “Southern morons,” but pot-smoking, boot-knocking, TV-addicted morons who just happen to live in the South.

It’s harder to explain away the play’s misogyny, frequently leveled on Chris’ trampy stepmother (Jill Perry). Joe reveals bottomless reservoirs of hate toward women, which sound all the more disquieting coming from Portell’s deceptively articulate, “civilized” stage persona. Joe’s tenderness to Dottie could be depraved love, or just the affection the cat has for the canary. Killer Joe builds to moments of graphic abuse in the second act that the play never repudiates and that cannot be laughed off.

Killer Joe’s darkest moments keep us from dismissing the show as saucy Southern slapstick. Letts also penned the off-Broadway hit Bug (a play reputedly even more dark and intense than Joe) and has earned a rep for terrifying portraits of abnormal psychology. Killer Joe’s bumbling comedy essentially leads the audience over trap doors that drop us into scenes of violent catharsis that approach Greek tragedy.

Had Actor’s Express mishandled Killer Joe, the show would merely be a repugnant experience. Instead, it proves a wild and unsettling ride — not a well-oiled roller coaster but a ramshackle county fair attraction in poor repair and operated by drunk carnies. See Killer Joe, but get a tetanus shot first.