This early play by Tracy Letts is, at first glance, a little immorality tale, set in a nest of scoundrels. The plot's shoved into motion by a young man cold-hearted enough to want his own mother killed, but not bold-hearted enough to do the job himself.
In that sense, the play harks to film noir -- the genre that starting mid-century told Americans they were less a bunch of idealists than a crew of remorseless individuals, driven by venal (or just concupiscient) desires, and wholly out for themselvess.
Indeed, when I chatted up actor Lissa Brennan after last Thursday's performance of this sharply visceral barebones staging, the noir afficionado said she considered the play's second act a direct descendent of that great early noir Double Indemnity, right down to its unraveling of a crooked life-insurance scheme.
Yet something that's interesting about the play dramatically is that, to make the evil doings resonate, Letts has crafted at least a couple characters who have sparks of genuine compassion. They are not "sympathetic," mind you. But they're not monsters.
The young man with the murder scheme is Chris (played by John Steffenauer). He's an aimless fellow, but what drives the play isn't so much that he hires a contract killer to off his mom but his relationship with his younger sister, Dotty (Hayley Nielsen). He sees himself, and is seen by Dotty in turn, as her protector, a relationship that goes back to their childhood (and has in no small part to do with what appears to be the brain injury she lives with -- ever since her own mother tried to smother her, in infancy).
Of course, Chris is nonetheless willing to hand over Dotty as a "retainer" to contract-killer Joe (Patrick Jordan). Yet perhaps more intriguingly complex is Joe's relationship to Dotty.
It might at first seem purely sexual, an interpretation that their hair-raising first "date" does little to dispel. But Jordan ultimately emphasizes a reading of the script that makes Joe, too, sympathetic, at least in his relationship to Dotty.
We can almost forget, for minutes at a time, that he's a police detective who kills people on the side.
Killer Joe has four more performances, tonight through Sat., July 10 (www.barebonesproductions.com).
The production's novel and quite captivating twist of having local rock legend Joe Grushecky perform live (solo and acoustic) between scenes is in effect all four shows; he and his Houserockers do a closing-night concert.