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Trailer Park Tragedy

The cast of Killer Joe is good at being very, very bad

The Smiths are a flat-out nasty lot. You can tell just by looking at their shabby, low-rent, trailer-park living room. Gaffer tape holds together the La-Z-Boy, tinfoil makes the TV work, and the refrigerator is a hulking box of rusty beige. Even worse, it's the middle of the night, and somebody is pounding like crazy on the flimsy front door. When Sharla Smith (Tek Wilson) stomps out from a bedroom, hollering "Hold on!" and wearing absolutely nothing but a tattered black T-shirt -- her you-know-what hanging out for the whole world to see -- you realize things are going to get pretty down and dirty in the nightmare world of Tracy Letts's Killer Joe. And when Chris Smith (Travis Ammons) finally bursts through the door in a hurricane of angry energy, screaming at his half-naked stepmother to "put some pants on," you know you aren't going to be able to take your eyes off these lowlifes no matter how badly they behave.

Indeed, this modern-day Faustian tale, getting its Houston premiere at Theater LaB under Ed Muth's direction, is most compelling for the creepy characters who populate its underworld. And Muth's stunning cast brings this gallery of grotesques to life.

Wilson's Sharla is the stepmother from hell. Her hair is teased up and dyed red, her dresses are tight, ruffled and trampy, and her shoes are impossibly high-heeled. But what's most frightening about Sharla isn't her lack of taste. It's her flat, pale-eyed gaze. Wilson's strange and beautiful face captures the perfectly stupid yet conniving emptiness taking up space where Sharla's heart should be.

Gallery of the grotesques: Theater LaB gets the most out of Killer Joe's creepy characters.
Gallery of the grotesques: Theater LaB gets the most out of Killer Joe's creepy characters.

She has absolutely no sympathy for her drug-dealing stepson, who has scrambled into his father's trailer because his biological mother threw him out of her house. As rotten as he might sound, Ammons's Chris is the most interesting creature in this Boschean garden. It's true that he's a dumb, small-time criminal whose cocaine dealing has gotten him into $6,000 worth of potentially deadly trouble. It's also true that he looks like nobody you'd ever sit next to at a train station -- a greasy mop of uncombed curls hangs over his brow, and a dirty hangdog T-shirt floats like a tent over his bone-thin frame. And yes, he does seem to have an unhealthy attachment to his virginal blond sister. But there's a hopeful side to him. He tells about a time when he tried to start a rabbit farm. "They smell like shit and they fuck each other all the time, but they're some easygoing animals," he says with a goofy, sweet-faced grin, right before he takes another toke off his joint. That's Chris's idea of sweet heaven: drinking beer, smoking pot and petting rabbits all day. When it all fell through, he explains, he started dealing dope.

He's a true-blue American loser, for there's something in him that dreams despite his dark upbringing. He could have been harmlessly happy had circumstances been different.

As it is, he's in deep trouble, and the only way out that his small twisted brain can imagine is to have his biological mother (who's as mean as they come) killed for the insurance money. He's come to talk over his outlandish plan with his father, who doesn't really want to see his ex-wife dead but really likes the idea of the $50,000 they'd collect. In fact, Ansel Smith, played with big- bellied, crotch-scratching charm by Ken Watkins, is a little bit like his son: essentially easygoing. But his own indifference, shaped by the indifference of the world in which he lives, makes him as dangerous as they come. He has no idea what's right and what's wrong. All he cares about is his own comfort.

And so Chris's idea sounds pretty good to Ansel. Father and son share a joint as they cipher out the nuts and bolts of their murderous plot. Chris knows a guy who knows a guy who's a full-time cop and part-time assassin. He figures they can promise the guy half the insurance money if he's willing to do the job. Even Chris's angelic-looking younger sister, Dottie (Nora Stein) approves the wild idea.

But when the supremely menacing Killer Joe (Tom Stell) struts in wearing a fancy dark suit and shiny leather boots, the dead-broke family discovers that he won't lift a finger without money in advance. "It's non-negotiable," he growls in a throaty, old-boy Texas twang. Of course, the family could offer a "retainer," in the form of pretty 20-year-old Dottie. Willing to dance with the devil for a sliver of insurance money, Chris and Ansel agree. What follows is a dark descent into a hell full of blood, guts, sex and naked flesh.

The second half of the production is not as powerful as the first, in part because the bizarre story that has been so beautifully set up begins to unravel. The ending feels so inconsequential as to be irrelevant. And Ammons, who positively electrifies the stage in the first act, has little to do once Chris has lost control of the situation.

Still, this gothic allegory is a fascinating bit of strange theater that burns with demonic performances from a wonderfully grim cast.

 
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