Here’s at least one lesson learned from this dreary Broadway season: Avoid shows with the word “smell” in the title. (In retrospect, this seems natural enough, doesn’t it?) A week after “Sweet Smell of Success” had critics fleeing the Martin Beck holding their noses, along comes Michele Lowe’s “The Smell of the Kill,” a coarse, sloppy comedy about three wives who blithely decide to let their husbands turn into Popsicles when they get themselves locked in a meat freezer. No amount of time in the subzero, alas, could keep this one from stinking.
The play is short — heaven be praised — but in its 80-minute running time there’s scarcely one or two that unfold credibly. The action takes place in the swank kitchen of a manse in suburban Chicago where three wives are washing up after dinner while their husbands practice their golf swings in the next room. The time is apparently today, but the domestic politics seem seriously out-of-date: In how many such upscale homes would a boorish husband screech, “Hey, you left a dish out here!” at wife, then hurl said plate into the kitchen when wifey dares to make a sarcastic retort?
Of course, the brutishness of these men must be exaggerated to supply the heroines with good cause to off the pigs and still keep the audience cheering, “You go, girls!” Later, the boys obnoxiously bombard the kitchen with golf balls when they discover there’s no dessert, and even torture the cat (all offstage: The play’s gimmick keeps the men firmly out of the picture).
Nicky (Lisa Emery) also has more substantial reasons to hate hubby Jay. He’s been brought up on embezzling charges and is pressuring her to quit her job as an editor to save the family fortunes. How’s that, exactly? The puzzling logic of this detail is emblematic of the play’s carefree lack of credibility. Later, the ditzy Molly (Jessica Stone) will reveal she’s having a hot affair, shortly before complaining that her husband stalks her every move and is driving her crazy with his possessiveness. So how’s she managing to cheat, and how does she explain the sexy silk camisole the boyfriend gave her, which she wears to dinner with her husband and his friends? (The contrivances by which all three women become semi-undressed are ludicrous, particularly because they serve no discernible dramatic purpose.)
Most incredible of all is the about-face of Claudia Shear’s Debra, who at first violently resists the other women’s casually hatched plan to let the fellows freeze to death, then suddenly has a change of heart, confessing that, yes, now that you mention it, hubby is an adulterous lech, and evil to their son, to boot. Let him chill!
The three talented performers trapped in this shrill concoction salvage some appealing moments from the wreckage, although Christopher Ashley’s direction mostly takes its cue from the coarse textures of the writing. Stone has a daffy Goldie Hawnish quality, and her quirky line readings elicit some of the evening’s more gentle laughs. When Molly opens a cupboard and finds a butcher knife used as a push-pin, she blandly observes, “You still use your wedding presents. That’s so great.” Shear attempts valiantly to bring some human warmth to her character, while Emery tears voraciously into the outraged venom of hers.
Some female members of the audience will get a kick out of the play’s increasingly nasty man-bashing (when Debra asks rhetorically if she’ll burn in hell for doing in her husband, more than one audible demurral could be heard), but the laughs are mostly cheap and easy — or tasteless, like the one about the effects of the subzero temperature on the boys’ genitalia.
It’s easy enough to imagine an appealing revenge fantasy centering on a trio of husband-hating housewives, but “Smell of the Kill” is so slapdash in its construction and lacking in real wit and logic that there’s not even much sneaky pleasure to be had in watching the downtrodden triumph over their oppressors. It’s really just the audience that is being oppressed here.