Fort Worth — Well, that escalated quickly. In Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe, produced by L.I.P. Service, a $6,000 debt quickly turns into a haphazard murder-for-hire situation in this brutal production of a brutal story.
Chris Smith (Joshua Hahlen) is in trouble. In debt to a guy to whom it’s not smart to owe money, Chris goes to the home of his father Ansel (Trey Albright), his wife Sharla (Leslie Boren Katz), and little sister Dottie (Hillary Brainerd). He tells Ansel of a life insurance policy his mother has, and she seems to be pretty universally hated, they determine to hire a Dallas PD detective named (Killer) Joe Cooper (Jason Levya), who moonlights as a killer for hire.
The Smiths are the epitome of "trailer trash"—and they have the clichéd feeble intelligence to go with it. Joe is ice cold with a psychopathic rage streak that manifests at times of great conflict. Adding a little depth, Letts creates an odd love triangle between Chris, his sister Dottie and Joe.
Chris and Ansel don’t have the money up front to pay Joe. Therefore, Joe asks for Dottie as a retainer, and it’s unclear whether Letts intends this to be a commentary on the treatment of women as property or not, but it doesn’t play that way. Chris and Ansel essentially whore their own family out for a fairly paltry sum of money when it’s all said and done. Like if Indecent Proposal went to the trailer park.
There are other minor flourishes in the script, leading to a legitimately solid twist and thrilling ending. However, the body of the piece isn’t all that exciting. The characters are generally one-dimensional and the plot is straightforward before the big ending. But, it’s by Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of August: Osage County—which is much more accomplished—so he’s given more latitude than others.
The performances, too, are uneven. For not actually having much to do, and being more comic relief than anything, Albright as the patriarch, Ansel, delivers one of the best performances. Of all the actors, he’s the most comfortable in his skin—which is saying a lot considering three other characters are in some state of nudity at some point in the play—and he has a natural demeanor as the dim-witted dad. Katz, too, delivers a solid performance for the same reasons. The role is believable and natural, and when she has to crank it up to 11, she does so brilliantly and believably as snot drips from her bloody, tear-soaked face at one point. She is authentic and fearless.
The show hinges heavily on the performance of Chris. Despite the title of the play, he is the main character and the catalyst for all the play’s events. So, Hahlen’s rather wooden performance ends up affecting the whole play. He has flashes of what the role could be, but most of the time he is too restrained for someone with a death sentence. His deadpan voice knocks the tension of any given scene down a peg. In the few moments when he is able to muster genuine emotion in the voice, the production ascends to a greater level.
Dottie is meant to be slow, after her mother tried to smother her as a baby. While Brainerd gives an overall good performance, at times she is a bit too normal, which contradicts with her naively innocent yet sagelike musings. However, that’s a minor quibble. She is clearly talented.
Levya is an excellent actor, but just doesn’t fit for some reason. Joe is all stoic veneer with an ocean of violent rage bubbling just beneath the surface. He’s a volcano ready to blow at any time. Playing the role takes great restraint, and Levya is just such an expressive actor that it makes the character inconsistent. His emotion escapes the veneer in little leaks, which lessens the impact of the eruptions. Why would a guy who has appeared otherwise somewhat normal and reasonable blow up like that? Joe is a stone cold psychopath, and Levya, who also directs the production, doesn’t turn his natural charisma down enough to really knock it out of the park.
The show isn’t perfect, but it’s entertaining. A straightforward story of dumb people doing dumb things, injected with lots of sex and violence. Oh, how very Dallas.