Killer Joe | B SharpKiller Joe, the first play by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts, concerns a dysfunctional Texas trailer-trash family who get more than they bargained for when hiring a hitman to murder one of their own, hoping to cash in on a life insurance policy. Their plans are hardly best-laid, however, and one bad decision after another finds them in an increasingly untenable position as the professional killer insinuates himself further and further into their affairs.

It’s all pretty dark, actually, but for the first third of this play the story feels reminiscent of the kind of “Texas Noir” that would encompass some of the darker Coen Brothers films, with that layer of black humour that comes without obvious punchlines but rather from character, situations, and idiosyncratic turns of phrase. That, and the show’s own advertising may well lead one to expect a night filled with laughs, including some rather awkward ones. This is quite misleading, but it’s also true… depending very much on just how dark your sense of humour is.

This is an interesting example of that awkward and tremendously subjective balancing act that a lot of good, challenging art engages in, between being shocking for the sake of making a point, or for the sake of dramatic effect, or, some might feel, merely for the sake of being shocking, of pushing the envelope. When coupled with comedy it can become even more uncomfortable – which is usually the point, of course.

Without giving away too much of the plot (because it is quite an engrossing ride), the narrative involves not only some fairly heinous sexual exploitation and considerable threats of violence, but also a quite harrowing and prolonged scene of battery and sexual assault on a woman played out in great detail. Almost equally shocking is the way the other characters react (or rather, don’t) to this act of brutality.

By now, of course, the play is no longer funny, nor does it attempt to become so again from this point forward. The ending is similarly intense, downbeat and disturbing in the way the characters respond to the terrible events in their midst. How you will react to these scenes and thus the play as a whole will be again quite subjective.

Of course, this is most likely Letts’ goal. To disarm the audience with initial humour and then shock with the full force of such unpleasant content is a viable tactic. I suppose what one has to ask is if the message being imparted is something adequately enlightening to make enduring these horrors worthwhile. Is it that the American South’s culture is sick, self-centred and lacking in empathy? Or the American lower-working class in general? Even the whole country? Is it a metaphorical, microcosmic exploration of the country’s casual acceptance of violence and exploitation as endemic, entrenched in their very values? Is it more simply a distressing story of crime and human weakness designed to make you question the dark heart of your fellow man? Perhaps none of these things, perhaps all of the above. As long as the play makes you think, one imagines Letts would consider it a job well done.

The question, however, is… does it? Or does the extreme unpleasantness of the degrading, brutal acts played out mere inches away from us overwhelm any potential message, block out any enriching social contemplation? It really depends on your individual threshold for this sort of thing. Objectively, there’s nothing in this play that’s much worse than what you might see on a “hard-hitting” TV cop show at the same time of night. For example this week’s episode of City Homicide opened with a startlingly explicit sex scene that quickly devolved into the brutal murder of the woman the camera had moments ago been eroticising. The scenes in Killer Joe would pale in comparison to whatever Barrie Kosky would be presenting any given day of the week, let alone whatever might be the latest bit of charming “torture porn” being put out at the cinemas by Eli Roth or his coterie of imitators. Any number of things on stage, screen or idiotbox could be found that would technically match or surpass Letts’ play for confronting content.

So why then did this play seem particularly unsettling? Because the issues are so believable that it seems “realistic”? Yes, but not really. Were the characters all so unsympathetic that it took on an additional whiff of nihilism? Possibly. That the humour used early in the piece, rather than merely softening you up for the knockout punch, seemed instead to cheapen the truly serious scenes to come? Probably, but that could be just me.
Perhaps part of the problem is that most of this initial comedy comes from the fact that these people are self-destructive, unscrupulous trailer-trash, most of whom are entirely responsible for their own undoing. In a week where the American remake of Kath & Kim has debuted here to a predictably lukewarm response, one wonders whether presenting crass working-class-and-beneath Seppos as idiotic, tasteless and amoral isn’t choosing a rather easy target. There may be some reverse cultural snobbery here, an underlying assumption that “well of course Texan trailer-trash are moronic, venal, corrupt and gutless – is this supposed to be news to us?” But really, would the attitude be much different amongst the cultured theatergoing crowd in any northern U.S. city? What would be fascinating is to see how a piece like this would play closer to home, say in Houston, Dallas or Austin.

If this review seems uncommonly equivocal, it is due to the subject of the material, rather than any indictment of its quality. Indeed, having provoked this reaction is, if anything, perhaps a backhanded endorsement. What certainly deserves unreserved kudos, however, is the production. Played out on Luke Ede’s richly detailed and thoroughly disgusting set (the best I’ve ever seen in the Downstairs venue), Iain Sinclair has directed this naturalistic potboiler with great skill, creating a highly believable, claustrophobic and intensely repellent little world inside this run-down trailer. Oh, and the contribution of local blues/rock band The Snowdroppers to the scene transitions frankly rocks.

The actors are perfectly cast, and I can’t fault a single performance. Josh Quong Tart is engaging as the pathetic patriarch, Anita Hegh darkly humorous (at first) as the conniving stepmother, and Robin Goldsworthy is even improbably likable as the cowardly son who sets events in motion. Christopher Stollery cuts an intimidating figure as the titular Joe, playing the scary hardman with enough menace to generate considerable tension but never overdoing it to the point of caricature. Maeve Dermody is impressive as Dottie, arguably the most clear-cut victim in the tale, bringing a lot of subtle, credible touches to this eccentric role. A bit unbalanced, the character has moments of either sudden outburst or merely just oddly inappropriate responses that add an unsettling element to this disarmingly pretty, seemingly innocent young woman, and Dermody carries it off perfectly.

There’s a lot to like in this play, and also a fair bit that will make you squirm, or even take offence. Whether that’s an edifying, stimulating kind of discomfort is going to say as much about you as it does about the play.

Adam Booth and B Sharp present
Killer Joe
by Tracy Letts

Where: Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre, 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Dates: 10 October – 2 November
Times: Tues 7pm, Wed-Sat 8.15pm, Sun 5.15pm
Tickets: $29/$23 (Preview $20, Cheap Tues Pay-what-you-can min $10)
Bookings: 9699 3444 or

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