On my recent trip to London, I was able to see the play, Killer Joe at the Trafalgar Studio 2. This show is hot and I booked tickets more than a month in advance. I went with my niece, Pippa, who is currently attending drama school in London.
Believe it or not, the main draw for me was not Orlando Bloom. Sure, Bloom is sexy and a major star, but I would have seen this no matter the cast, because I'm a fan of the playwright, Tracy Letts. Killer Joe is Letts' first play and not one that I was familiar with, although I've since learned that there is also a film version. I'm a fan of his Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play, August: Osage County. I also enjoyed Superior Donuts, which has since been turned into a television series. I'm a fan of Letts' mother, novelist Billie Letts. Clearly, they have a talented family!
Admittedly, I was a bit disappointed when I looked at the London theater offerings. There wasn't much that I hadn't seen or couldn't easily see in Los Angeles. Some shows had even premiered in Los Angeles. Killer Joe was the big stand-out: a play with a stellar cast by a playwright that I admire. I had to see it.
We scored very good seats, but Trafalgar Studios 2 is a small venue and I think that any seat would have provided a great view. I would definitely return to this venue for future shows. It reminded me of the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, California.
The play started as the audience was filtering in, with Dottie (Sophie Cookson), walking around the stage, watching television and grabbing items from the kitchen. Killer Joe takes place in a trailer home in Texas, with the action happening in the living room, kitchen, and roof of the trailer. I'm not sure of the exact year that Killer Joe is set, but I assume late 80's/ early 90's- none of the characters use cell phones and although cells might exist in their world, my assumption is this was a time before they were common place. The characters in Killer Joe are struggling and even a few thousand dollars seems out of reach.
The blue-collar Smith family lives in the trailer. Ansel (Steffan Rhodri) is the patriarch and his current wife is Sharla (Neve Mcintosh). Dottie, Ansel's daughter from his first marriage, also lives with them. She is in her late-teens and appears to be slightly off-balance, hyper-sensitive and living in a dream world. Ansel's son, Chris (Adam Gillen), has been living with his mother, Ansel's first wife. Chris is in his early twenties and has not been able to keep himself out of trouble.
Chris owes his drug dealer money, a sum that he cannot possibly repay. He knows that if he does not figure out how to repay it, they'll kill him. However, Chris has another plan, a plan that involves Killer Joe (Orlando Bloom), a detective who moonlights as a hired hitman. Chris approaches Ansel with a plan to have Joe kill Chris' mother. His mother has a fifty- thousand dollar life insurance policy and Chris has discovered that Dottie is the beneficiary. Chris has no love for his raging alcoholic mother and Ansel has no love for his ex-wife, so they agree to meet with Joe. Sharla catches wind of the plan and soon they are splitting the money three ways, minus Joe's cut.
Joe comes to the house and is immediately taken with Dottie. He demands his fee upfront, but when the Smith's can't pay it, another option is proposed. Joe wants Dottie as a retainer. Joe intimidates the entire Smith family, except Dottie, who seems pleased that he has entered her life. He moves into the trailer and into Dottie's bed. Chris, who has an extreme attachment to his sister, decides that he wants to call off the job, but Joe has already set the plan in motion. Plus, Joe really likes Dottie. The only thing for certain is no one is getting out of this arrangement unscathed.
As I previously mentioned, I had no idea what to expect with Killer Joe. I did not know the plot and only an hour before seeing the show, did I learn that I would get a glimpse of a nude Orlando Bloom = bonus. After seeing Killer Joe, I read other reviews, many of which were negative, primarily ripping on the abuse that the female characters endure. A few reviews mentioned that when Letts wrote Killer Joe, he had a lot of wiggle room, but now with the "Me Too" movement, the way that the women are portrayed in Killer Joe just isn't acceptable. It's doubly unacceptable because Killer Joe is written by a man.
Yes, the violence towards the female characters is hard to watch. It's incredible uncomfortable. It's abuse. However, the world in which these characters live is not pretty. The only "good" character in the play is Dottie, who through much of the story seems to just float through life, allowing terrible things to happen to her. She is the perpetual victim. The other characters are all the perpetrators and they all get their comeuppance. The characters in Killer Joe are either themselves violent or they turn a blind-eye to it, only looking out for their own benefit.
Dottie is the reason why the violence works. She is the victim throughout the entire play, until the last few minutes, when she snaps. We get glimpses that Dottie isn't totally checked-out. She may not be actively involved in the plan to kill her mother, but she is aware and seemingly okay with it.
She seems to go along with the Joe plan, almost as if he is courting her. In fact, Dottie seems to be using Joe as a shield to protect her from Chris. Although not explicitly stated, it is implied that Chris has molested Dottie and that he has a continued romantic interest in his sister. Ansel easily hands his daughter over to Joe and although she seems to be hesitate, Sharla also agrees with the plan. Every single person in the play uses Dottie. Dottie has a gun when she finally snaps and shoots both her brother and father. She spares Sharla, who has suffered other indignities at the hands of Joe, but only after hesitating. In the last moments of the play, Dottie has the gun pointed at Joe, who remains calm and collected. The final line of the play is Dottie telling Joe that she is pregnant. Lights out.
The play ends in a way that is left open to interpretation. I've given it thought and I think it's a power move by Dottie. She has the gun, but she is still intimidated by Joe. Telling him that she is pregnant buys her time, gives her a chance to get him in a position where he is more vulnerable and she has a better chance at survival. Because of the short time line, I don't think she could possible know that she is pregnant. I think it's a bluff to give her the upper-hand. Dottie is smarter and better at survival than anyone would suspect. Ultimately, she will win, crushing Joe and everyone else who has abused her. Dottie is no longer a victim, but she has to play it smart.
The ending has a great fight sequence that makes use of music and slow motion. It's intense.
**** END SPOILER ****
Killer Joe is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. It's violent and brutal. That said, I thought it has a gripping plot and excellent dialogue, exactly what I've come to expect from Letts. It's also very funny, plenty of dark comedy in this morality tale. The acting is top-notch, expecially Cookson's portrayal of Dottie. I didn't realize that Cookson plays Roxy in The Kingsman movies. Great stuff. Bloom is truly intimidating as Joe, using his calm demeanor and towering presence to terrorize the Smith family. Killer Joe was well-worth my limited time and budget during my London holiday.