Kill Joe

The family meal from hell

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 16.01.2015

Tracy Letts is both an actor and a playwright. Some of you will have met him as Senator Andrew Lockhart, who becomes director of the CIA in Homeland, the cult television series about America’s fight against terrorism. Watch it if you have not done so yet! It is timelier than ever as it raises many of the relevant questions around Islamism.

And since as a viewer you invariably associate actors with the roles they are playing, it will take you by surprise to then discover the in-your-face texts Letts wrote at the start of his career as a playwright. Anne Simon brought Bug to the Théâtre National in 2009, and now she has turned to Killer Joe, Letts’s very first play. The production was showing at Théâtre des Capucins on January 10, 14 and 15.

Killer Joe is about a contract killing that goes wrong when a couple of plotters are double-crossed by various other people.

To start with, Chris Smith, a petty drug dealer, is in serious trouble. He owes money to a gang of criminals who have threatened to kill him unless he pays his debts, so he swiftly persuades Ansel, his father, to hire a professional in order to kill his own mother, i.e. Ansel’s first wife, and cash in on her life insurance policy.

The Smiths live in a rundown trailer home outside Dallas. A few significant details set the scene: there’s T-Bone, the pit-bull next-door, who never stops barking, there’s the fridge that only holds beer cans, and then there’s the monstrous TV and the radio, on which an evangelist preaches about the gifts of the Holy Ghost.

Into this squalor walks Joe Cooper (a truly impressive Isaac Bush), a detective from the Dallas police department who doubles as a contract killer. The chilling slowness of Joe’s movements and the sleek euphemisms he uses suggest he has been down this route before.

Letts’s writing is poised and breathtakingly precise. On a knife edge, in fact. And the acting is excellent all round: While Sharla (Alessija Lause), Ansel’s second wife, is a trailer trash type rather than a nuanced character, both Dottie (a stunning Elisabet Johannesdottir) and Joe are complex, intriguing figures that will make you cringe but also draw you in. Meanwhile Chris (Daron Yates), Dottie’s brother, is a loudmouth loser bound to trap himself in ever more hopeless deals, while Ansel (Milton Welsh) is clearly too dim-witted for the situation the family are caught up in, although he is as selfish and greedy as everyone else.

Anne Simon succeeds in perfectly capturing the tone of the play: this odd cocktail of comedy and cruelty, of graphic violence and black humour. You might be laughing out loud one minute, yet feel extremely uncomfortable the next. Also, the rhythm is spot-on. It’s a fast-moving production that reflects how quickly lives may unravel. Yet there are beautifully quiet moments of intimacy in the midst of all the mess as well.

They revolve around Dottie, who is a beguiling mix of naivety and knowingness. Though she understands what is planned before anyone tells her, she keeps her nervousness to herself and exudes an eerie stillness until the very last scene in which she snaps. Will she or won’t she shoot Joe? The moment of suspense stays with you as you leave the theatre.

Cold-blooded control is set against panicked improvisation, which invariably leads to more explosive violence. Killer Joe shows us people drifting into the most abominable alliances. The Smiths may be described as amoral characters ready to do outrageous things, but their inability to see through the games of others makes them particularly vulnerable, too.

Killer Joe by Tracy Letts, directed by Anne Simon, assisted by Daliah Kentges; set design: Romain Stammet; with Isaac Bush, Elisabet Johannesdottir, Alessija Lause, Milton Welsh and Daron Yates; production: Les Théâtres de la Ville; no further performances.
Janine Goedert
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