KILLING WOMEN THEATRE SEVEN OF CHICAGO
WHEN Through 9/2: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM
WHERE Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago
PRICE $20, $15 in advance
Marisa Wegrzyn's clever new play, Killing Women, gives a sly feminist twist, a la 9 to 5, to the hit-man comedy genre: she peppers the script with one-liners and provides a touch of pathos. It runs out of steam by the end, but at 26 Wegrzyn displays more confidence and smarts than many older playwrights. At its best, the play is an extreme take on the battle between those who extol the virtues of stay-at-home motherhood and those who charge that women who fail to take up a career are letting down the team. This agreeably off-kilter production by Theatre Seven of Chicago, efficiently directed by Brian Golden, shows off Wegrzyn's strengths, though the weaker elements still sometimes come to the fore.
The play begins with a killer scene: Baxter arrives home late from the office with his cool, sexy coworker, Abby. There he needles his mousy wife, Gwen, while Abby tells a scurrilously misogynist joke--interrupted when Gwen pulls out a gun and drops her husband with a single bullet to the heart.
It turns out that Abby is (and Baxter was) a hired killer working for world-weary kingpin Ramone. He's decided that the pressures of the job are too much for him: during his first scene with Abby he downs a cocktail of Jack Daniel's and Mylanta. Abby believes she should be the one to replace him, but Ramone tells her she's being passed over in favor of a man--in part because, despite her track record, Ramone doubts she's sufficiently heartless. He challenges her to kill Gwen to prove her mettle, but Abby negotiates another deal with him. If she can transform Gwen, who's obviously a crack shot, into a hit woman within a week, she gets the top spot.
Abby's mission is hampered by two other members of Ramone's death squad: Lucy, who prefers to kill by lethal injection, usually administered after mercy sex, and well-meaning but clueless Mike, who has a habit of declaring his love for Abby at inopportune moments. But the biggest problem is that Gwen really doesn't want to be an assassin--she just wants to be a mom to her five-year-old daughter, Tess.
It's the mommy wars with a body count--a brilliant conceit. And there's no question Wegrzyn is an extremely funny writer. At one point Abby, worn out by Gwen's cheery yammering, barks, "You make me wish I was autistic." But once Wegrzyn establishes the conceit she doesn't keep the focus firmly enough on Gwen and Abby, which makes the abrupt resolution unconvincing. Though Margot Bordelon is terrific at limning Abby's growing unease at having staked her entire identity on Ramone's bloody empire and Tracey Kaplan's Gwen has a ditzy charm, the role reversals in the script aren't justified by any shifts in the two women--they more or less change places without changing. And while Robin Kacyn and Charlie Olson play Lucy and Mike with comic panache, a lot here feels like setup for a well-placed gag or caustic one-liner rather than anything that will serve the central story.
Wegrzyn has already made her off-Broadway debut with another black comedy, The Butcher of Baraboo--a production slammed by several New York critics in June, though its initial presentation in Steppenwolf's festival First Look Repertory of New Work (see Deanna Isaacs's column The Business in Section 2) last summer was warmly received. I haven't seen that play, but I adored Wegrzyn's Diversey Harbor, presented by Theatre Seven last spring as part of "Is Chicago" (a double bill that paired her play with David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago). In Diversey Harbor, about the effects of a young woman's murder on a loosely connected group of recent college grads, Wegrzyn developed idiosyncratic characters through a series of small revelations.
John Wilson's set neatly underscores Killing Women's comic-book aspect with projections of the scene titles and of Emily Grosland's cunning black-and-white pop-art renderings. But we've seen a lot of comedic treatments of professional killers in recent years, especially in film: Grosse Pointe Blank, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Mr. & Mrs. Smith. And though it's exciting to see a writer comfortable enough with language and tone to deliver two wildly different looks at urban violence within a few months of each other, there was more than brittle edginess to Diversey Harbor. Tantalizingly, Killing Women suggests there's more to Abby than single-minded devotion to her lethal field. But we don't see it despite the thorny question Wegrzyn poses: how much should women give up to make it to the top? Though Killing Women ultimately fails to address its challenging subject, it's an engaging, funny work from a writer we're likely to hear from again.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The cast of Killing Women.