The Berkshire Theater Festival and New York producers Elizabeth McCann, Nelle Nugent and Milton and Tamar Maltz have the makings of a hit on their hands. With more lusty guffaws in its short length than many a so-called comedy twice as long, “The Smell of the Kill” makes murder in the suburbs killingly funny.
Playwright Michele Lowe, who has revised the play since its January 1999 debut at the Cleveland Play House, has made astute use of her memories of listening to her father and his cronies playing cards in the living room while their wives fussed in the kitchen.
While three wives clean up and chat in the kitchen of an expensive home in a wealthy Chicago suburb, their husbands play golf in the living room. The house’s owner has recently installed a meat locker in the basement in which to freeze the kill from his hunting trips. The three husbands become locked in the locker, presumably accidentally, although no one would be surprised if the lady of the house, ultratough Nicky (Kristen Johnston), didn’t do it with malice aforethought.
With Debra (Claudia Shear) at first holding out against Nicky and Molly (Katie Finneran), the women happily decide to allow their husbands to freeze to death. The play ends with them rehearsing what they will tell the police. Along the way, the play boasts lines and scenes that have the audience laughing as uproariously as “The Producers.”
The three husbands (unseen, but heard from) are an unappetizing lot: Nicky’s has been charged with embezzlement, Molly’s no longer sleeps with her and Debra’s has found another woman and thrown his wife out of the house.
But Lowe plays fair by making the wives almost as flawed as their better halves. Nicky is out for no one but Nicky. Molly behaves as though she’s still her husband’s schoolgirl sweetheart, with an unformed mind to match, and she has taken up with other men. It’s this evenhandedness that gives the play much of its humor, as does its cheerful bad taste.
Johnston, Shear and Finneran make a terrific trio of ill-done-by wives under Christopher Ashley’s deft direction, each one projecting a clear-cut and clearly different personality. The uncredited offstage male voices are fine.
David Gallo’s kitchen set is inspired. All blue and white, it has a false perspective of side walls that slope rapidly inward toward the back of the stage, making the room seem much deeper than it really is.
“Smell of the Kill” echoes earlier plays and films such as “Everything in the Garden” and “The First Wives Club,” but so what? Carefully handled by its New York producers, it should have a good chance at a successful Manhattan transfer.