Catch a ‘Killer’

So, it’s easy to make snap judgments about all the shirtless (and sometimes pantless) people repeatedly arrested in their front yards on “Cops,” but perhaps we’re not getting the whole story.

For every poor soul whose coveted 15 minutes arrives in the form of him or her being pummeled by a team of police officers, immortalized on a low-budget videotape that stands to be syndicated for the duration of said soul’s prison sentence, there is a long and compelling back story.

British playwright Tracy Letts shows us just how complex that story can be with his brutal comedy “Killer Joe,” the brilliant, albeit squeamish play that runs through July 23 at the Magic Theatre.

Inside a filthy trailer, complete with hubcaps on the walls and a screen door that slams spastically, the prototypical white-trash Smith family has a gargantuan problem on its grimy hands.

A group of thugs has vowed to kill Chris Smith, the prodigal 22-year-old son who owes them $6,000 and has nowhere near enough empty beer cans to recycle to make a dent in that kind of debt.

With his life on the line, Chris hatches a plan with his father, Ansel, and stepmother, Sharla, to murder the young man’s biological mother, whose $50,000 life insurance policy is supposedly in the name of Chris’ younger sister, Dottie, a mentally challenged young lady whose affliction we never quite learn.

They hire Joe Cooper, better known as Killer Joe, a Dallas detective who kills on the side and demands a hefty advance, and when the Smith family reveals it doesn’t have enough money, he takes the precious Dottie as retainer.

Directed by Lee Sankowich and certainly not for the faint of heart, “Killer Joe” is a riveting production that for all of its “in-your-face” and obvious violence that does unfold on the stage, it is its disturbing and teeth-grinding psychological underpinnings that keep its audience on horrific pins and needles.

One of the show’s most notorious scenes, when Killer Joe (Cully Fredericksen) preys upon the sexualnaïveté of Dottie, is gut-wrenching, though it relies primarily on the power of suggestion to get its message across.

An exorbitantly violent scene in Act 2 also shakes one to the core, but what seems to make “Killer Joe’s” violence permissible is that it is pointed and purposeful, not merely for shock and awe.

Thankfully, the intensity is softened by a sinister wit that punctuates the script but only adds to the fervor in Act 2.

It is gripping, thanks to masterfully crafted characters, who, despite catastrophic flaws, are charismatic and likable, and their eventual degradation is hard to swallow.

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