Back in 1990 Tracy Letts invited friends to the first public reading of his Texas trailer-trash black comedy Killer Joe. The response, he told me for a 2007 Chicago magazine story, "was outrage." Three years later, when the play finally received its world premiere at Next Theatre after having been rejected all over town, the Reader's own Jack Helbig launched a critical jihad against it, likening it to "slasher films and hard-core pornography" and declaring, "Some may argue that these disturbing scenes are part of the play's dark worldview, and I would agree that they are. But when an artist's vision is so contemptible, barbaric, and flat-out evil, the fact that's he's consistent is no virtue." (This led to Letts calling Helbig, a little puzzlingly, "a horse's cock.")
The show was a hit anyway, and so were subsequent productions in New York and Edinburgh. Reaching London just in time for the neo-Jacobean excesses of in-yer-face playwrights like Martin McDonagh and Sarah Kane, Killer Joe became, as critic Aleks Sierz put it, one of the British scene's "landmark plays of the mid-1990s."
Now that Letts has won a Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County, Killer Joe has graduated from succès de scandale to Notable Early Work, worth studying for hints of later genius. And it actually offers a few. The dialogue here exhibits the mean, dry wit that makes August so much fun, and the Coen-brothers-esque story line—in which the dumb-as-sticks Smiths hire the title character to murder their vicious family matriarch—anticipates August's festival of oedipal dysfunction. What's more, Killer Joe gives the first indication of Letts's talent for creating memorably shocking images: the play's grotesque set piece, a pseudo-rape scene involving a drumstick from KFC, can be seen as a crude precedent for the at once masterfully wrought and delightfully cheap mother-daughter catfight in August.
There are more subtle parallels, too. An actor himself (you can see him now in Steppenwolf's revival of American Buffalo), Letts knows how to write dialogue whose rhythms help players build scenes and express character. That knowledge is every bit as much on display in Killer Joe as in the later work. And so is Letts's psychological acuity. Dumb as they are, the Smiths have some interesting thought processes. Letts keeps raising the stakes on them—each absurdity they swallow merely a prelude to an even bigger one—and we get to watch as they mentally prime themselves to open wider: considering the new whopper, rationalizing the need for it, accepting it against all odds. It's like being able to hear the frog's inner monologue as the skillet it's sitting in gets hotter and hotter.
Still, the Smiths are mighty dumb, and too much depends on their insistent dimness. For all its intimations of great things to come, Killer Joe remains a very rough beast, a canny first effort, full of gratuitous gestures—chief among them that drumstick scene, which comes out of nowhere and ultimately means nothing except that Killer Joe Cooper is one nasty hombre. I wonder how Letts would handle the same set of circumstances now.
Rick Snyder's production for Profiles Theatre is all about Darrell Cox's performance in the title role, and indeed a better Killer Joe is hard to imagine. With a deep voice that can soothe even as it brooks no argument, Cox is funny, menacing, sexy, outright scary, and sometimes disconcertingly wise. A passage during which he simply watches Dottie Smith, the damaged ingenue of the piece, is mesmerizing.
Trouble is, nothing else onstage can match him. Everything around Cox's Joe is mannered and oddly manicured, starting with Sotiros Livaditis's set, which says "vintage" when it should be going for "desperate." As Chris, the loosest cannon among the Smiths, Kevin Bigley stops at neurosis rather than push all the way to crazy. And on opening night, Howie Johnson looked like he'd just come from the barber when that's the last place I'd expect to find the alcoholic paterfamilias. Even the drumstick looked too perfect.