“Killer Joe,” a vicious and repellent little Tarantino-era play, spins a squalid thriller out of the easy and offensive equation of poverty with moral iniquity, and then takes offensiveness a step further by playing this familiar tune for comic effect. Tracy Letts’ 1993 play has been revived with dismaying dedication at the SoHo Playhouse by a talented cast, including Scott Glenn and Amanda Plummer, this week’s pair of distinguished actors to show questionable taste in their choice of material (and that’s not all they show, either), following hot on the heels of Frances McDormand and Billy Crudup in “Oedipus.”
The play’s success abroad — it traveled to the Edinburgh fest and on to London after debuting in Chicago — is easily traced to its portrayal of the lower depths of American culture as luridly violent, a canard always popular with the English. But you would think the exploitative nature of Letts’ conception wouldn’t go down so smoothly here on home turf.
It’s clear from the start, when we discover the Smith family living in a trailer (where else?), that Letts and director Wilson Milam are going to pile on gleefully all the white-trash stereotypes they can. In the dingy confines of this home sweet trailer home, the fridge is stocked with a single six-pack and Doritos qualify as an appetizer for a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner. The TV, with its pathetic foil-wrapped antenna (no cable for this class), glares constantly from a corner, entrancing these rubes with Road Runner cartoons, “Cannon” and the Home Shopping Network.
The author’s winking condescension is evident in every detail, and audiences, most of whom aren’t likely to be of the tuna-casserole set, seem to lap it up. No prizes for guessing what model car is used for a gag line; yup — it’s a Pinto, and the audience duly sniggers on cue.
The Smith family has morals to match the decor. Sharla (Amanda Plummer) is cheating on her beer-bellied husband Ansel (Marc A. Nelson), who in turn makes the occasional lascivious gesture toward his adult daughter Dottie (Sarah Paulson). The slightly touched Dottie is meant to be the sympathetic center of this trashy tornado, but her characterization is just as stagy and superficial as the rest. She’s sentimentally sketched as the Laura Wingfield of this dim bunch, only without the charm and personality, and is prone to the dreamy non sequitur. “His eyes hurt,” she says portentously of the title character, played by Glenn.
He, too, is a cliche made drearily familiar in recent years by Tarantino and his various film spawn: the poker-faced, quietly malevolent cop (itself a retread of noir conventions). Killer Joe gets tangled up with the Smiths when Dottie’s brother Chris makes a deal with Joe to bump off their mother for her insurance money, a plan to which dad Ansel, stepmom Sharla and Dottie herself casually acquiesce. Things go violently wrong, natch, and the play offers a few kinky twists before descending into a blood-drenched finale of considerable repugnance.
Letts has clearly been influenced by Sam Shepard, a playwright who could invest even the most squalid behavior with glints of authentic feeling, but Letts is a far lesser writer. He uses vulgarity and violence purely for effect, either comic or grisly, and likewise exploits his sordid milieu rather than explore its truths. (Mike Leigh, in such plays as “Ecstasy,” treats the English equivalent of this stratum of society with far more sympathy and integrity.)
Letts is also an actor, and it’s easy to see why his play appeals to the breed; these characters are vivid types — they walk around in their underwear, or less, and scratch themselves repulsively. They have Velveeta-thick Texas accents. But their characterization stops at such easy cues, and no amount of vulgar verisimilitude — and Plummer and Co. apply plenty — can give these characters the humanity the author doesn’t supply. And without any humanity, their desperate behavior has no power to move or shock or appall us. Only the author’s coarseness does.