It’s billed as a thriller, but David Wiltse’s “Temporary Help” is really more of a black comedy. True, it starts off with a bang and ends with a memorable parting shot, but in between there are few plot twists or surprises. Instead, there’s laugh after queasy laugh, as the playwright finds humor in things that shouldn’t be funny (domestic violence, child abuse, murder), but are.
The play is based on a decidedly serious, true-life crime, in which a Midwestern farmer and his wife murdered their hired hands. With this scenario in mind, Wiltse invented Karl and Faye Streber (Thomas Kopache and Stephanie Faracy), a serial-killing couple who give new meaning to the word “dysfunctional.”
When a hunky young drifter (Chad Allen) shows up and the sheriff (John Procaccino) starts poking around, Karl and Faye’s twisted little world threatens to unravel.
Although the subject matter is grisly, “Temporary Help” is really a rather delicate play. It requires just the right touch to keep it funny, but not too funny; believable, but not too believable.
Overall, director Gordon Edelstein coaxes just the right tone out of his cast at Contemporary Theater. Kopache plays the sadistic Karl just a notch or two below Dennis Hopper at his most psychotic. Faracy plays his sad and vulnerable wife Faye a little more realistically, for balance.
Allen plays Vince, the drifter, as an almost comic rube, without ever seeming as though he’s condescending to the character. And Procaccino does a fine, straight turn as the sheriff, the only sane character, providing relief to the madness.
Together, the playwright and the actors use understatement to great effect. At one point, after Karl has mentally and emotionally brutalized Faye and Vince in a particularly cruel way, Vince turns to Faye and says, “He’s kinda weird, isn’t he?”
This is the kind of line (and they occur over and over) that shows just how demanding the script is. Delivered too deadpan, it would sound plain stupid; delivered too robustly, it would sound almost desperate for a laugh. But with plenty of understatement and the slightest hint of irony, it’s just right.
Also sounding just the right note is the score by acclaimed guitarist and composer Bill Frisell. It ranges from blues to disfigured jazz, echoing the play’s mix of “normal life” and noir creepiness.
“Temporary Help” is a slight play, well-constructed and well- presented in this premiere. It definitely has the makings of a screenplay, if prospective producers aren’t scared off by its seamier episodes.