Tracy Letts is a genius. While Killer Joe is not the rich and sympathetic tour de force (sorry for that cliché) that August: Osage County is, it absolutely crackles with energy, uninhibited joy, reckless contempt, and a complete obliviousness to more sensitive audience members that is bracing, astonishing and thrilling. It seems that Letts has no objection to emotionally raping us, but like Joe in one of his more generous moments, he’s willing to let us off the hook with comedy. The humor is vicious, and gives us every opportunity to mock these low-class strivers as they foolishly scheme for the big payoff.

Our amusement, dependent on our perceived cultural superiority, is one example of Letts distillation of the Classical (with a capital C) comedic forms. It’s almost textbook. You have low-class buffoons, concocting a ridiculous plan to rise above their station. Of course, they get over their heads very quickly. We know from the beginning that this crew will be outsmarted at every turn, and end up in as bad or worse a place then when they started (hint: it’s a worse place).

As the stand-in for a comedic protagonist, Joe (Darrell W. Cox in a Jeff-winning performance) breaks the classical mold. One of the most amazing things about this production of Killer Joe is how sympathetic this sociopath becomes, how we connect with him as charismatic leader, despite his brutality. It is hard to imagine liking the first Joe, Michael Shannon, in this role as much as we like Cox. Don’t take that the wrong way…

As for the buffoons, Letts isn’t satisfied to simply give us a Launcelot Gobbo to chuckle at. Instead, he pulls in themes of opera and epic poetry. To set us up for absolutely anything, the play begins with a matricide plot hatched by Chris (Kevin Bigley), and readily assented to by his father, Ansel (Howie Johnson), and Ansel’s girlfriend, Sharla (Somer Benson). From that initial and seemingly ultimate betrayal, we spiral deeper along shrinking concentric rings of family dysfunction, cowardice, and more betrayal. Or perhaps the rings are just a spring, winding tighter and tenser each moment, taunting us until it snaps.

As in Dante, betrayal is the most hideous sin. The greater the traitor, the greater the punishment. Letts (and director Rick Snyder) might go too far with the punishment, but as Dante will tell you, the vilest traitors must spend eternity in Satan’s mouth. Joe makes a pretty good Satan, all in all, and we know before the second act begins that nobody is escaping his maw.

What is left to incorporate into this post-structural amalgam of classical forms? We need a little redemption, and we get it from the sacrificial lamb, Dottie (Claire Wellin). This all melds into a surprisingly moral play by the end, but not quite a morality play. Redemption here is not simple, and it is certainly not cheap, and we leave uncertain as to whether it is going to be enough to save any sinner among us.

Killer Joe is playing in the Royal George Cabaret, by far the best space in that theater. Killer Joe is on sale through July 18th. If you have enough tolerance for graphic violence, physical, emotional and sexual, then I recommend it. This production was a big winner at the Non-Equity Jeff Awards this year, taking the awards for Outstanding Production, Outstanding Director, and Outstanding Actor in a Principle Role, all in the “Play” category.

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