It's temping to think Killer Joe, Tracy Letts' 1993 play currently staging at Long Beach's Garage Theatre, is a not-so-subtle metaphor for the apparently terminal dysfunction of the American nuclear family. Consider the family surname: Smith. And consider that Dad's a TV-addicted idiot, mom's a slut, the eldest son's a dealer, and the family treasure, baby sister Dottie, might actually be the most fucked-up.
Now mix that up in a bowl spiced with hints of child abuse, incest and a Kentucky Fried Chicken fetish, and we're really in Jerry Springer territory.
The introduction of the eponymous Killer Joe, a renegade cop turned for-hire assassin, could also suggest the very thing that ostensibly exists to help protect self-proclaimed scum like the Smiths—the law—is just as corrupt and loathsome as the Pabst-swilling cretins who call on it in their hour of greed.
While you could conclude that Letts' play gestures toward that kind of societal analysis, it's just as possible to think Killer Joeis simply a nasty piece of pulpy fiction as ultimately simple-minded and consumed by the banal and venal as the ridiculously cliché Texas trailer-park-trash family at its center.
Not that there isn't great entertainment in watching a deceptive female nearly choke to death while orally copulating a chicken-leg bone. But don't walk in expecting much more.
There are great moments—other than the fowl blowjob—in director Eric Hamme's production, including some juicy physical combat, gritty performances, and a killer set design courtesy of Maureen Weiss that blends trailer-park kitchen-sink wretchedness with artsy drama-school flourishes, like the disembodied TVs that dangle from the ceiling.
But it's hard to overcome the tediousness of Letts' script, which has traces of Harold Pinter menace and Sam Shepard starving-class rawness but is marred by character development as thin as Fiona Apple's wrists, more plot holes than 10 minutes of a Hillary Scott DVD and more momentum-killing anecdotes than a Quentin Tarantino film. Letts' belabored point that American society is inured to violence because of the ease with which it oozes from our cathode-tube wet nurse is just that: belabored.
The whole thing seems overwrought, underplotted and unsatisfying, even with a white-knuckler conclusion in which 90 minutes of pent-up violence finally explodes.
According to his Wikipedia entry, Letts wrote Killer Joewhen he was battling the bottle. Clean now for 13 years, in the past five, he has penned the Pulitzer-nominated Bugand, most recently, the quite grown-up The Man from Nebraska,which William Friedkin directed last year at South Coast Repertory.
Talk about a ringing endorsement for sobriety.
Killer Joe at the Garage Theatre, 4114 E. Third St., Long Beach, (562) 433-2041; www.thegaragetheatre.org. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through Sept. 8. $12-$15.
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