Ugly Americans

Nothing succeeds in London – critically, at least – like American decadence, which may be why David Beaird’s grotesque “900 Oneonta” (Southern-Gothic mayhem) got a best play Olivier nomination over Richard Nelson’s infinitely superior “New England” (Brit expats in various states of self-exile).

Now comes 29-year-old Chicago writer Tracy Letts’ “Killer Joe,” a portrait of redneck yobboism in a Texas trailer park that makes Beaird’s stage clan look almost genteel. A hit at last summer’s Edinburgh Festival, the play received unanimous raves from London critics in January in its transfer to the Bush and has now transferred to the Vaudeville.

“Killer Joe” was seen in New York with a different cast last fall at the 75-seat 29th Street Repertory, where it passed relatively unnoticed – a good Sunday Times review from Vincent Canby notwithstanding. So why the London hoopla? Said Letts during a visit from Los Angeles, where he is appearing in Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile”: “What I’d like to think is British people are smarter than American people, so they’re embracing a play that’s really good.”

The truth, I fear, is rather less lofty, if the press night squeals were any gauge. After all, how could an American play that begins with an overweight, beer-bellied man scratching his rear end and crotch fail with an English public keen to have feelings of superiority endorsed? (It’s exactly this temperament that is captured so well in “New England.”) Amid an environment where football hooliganism and less institutionalized forms of thuggery regularly make the front pages, “Killer Joe” is a theatrical palliative. Look, it tells a British audience, you’re not alone; we base Americans can disgust you even more than you disgust yourselves.

Capitalized at £75,000 ($122,000) and with a low weekly break around half that, the West End run looks as if it will be extended a further six weeks, through May 13. Producer Darren Lee Cole added that he would like to take the play back to New York in the early fall, this time for a commercial run “either in a small Broadway house or a large Off Broadway house.”

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