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Mommy dearest; Disturbing drama has unnerving story, strong performances

Nothing packs in the crowds quite like matricide.

It worked for the Greek playwrights who eagerly retold the myth of Electra and Orestes, the bloodthirsty siblings who conspired to knock off their vile mother Clytemnestra.

It worked for Brian De Palma, whose film "Carrie" gave us a supernaturally gifted teen whose retribution for the religious oppression of her mother comes in the form of gruesome murder.

And it seems likely to work in Richard Linklater's upcoming film "Bernie," a tale of a Texas quasi-matricide in which a crusty old woman despised by her family ends up face-down in her own deep freezer.

And the list -- whatever dark things it says about our dramatic appetites -- goes on.

Young playwright Tracy Letts knew well the age-old dramatic appeal of the subject when he set out to write his first play, "Killer Joe," in the early 1990s. An engrossing and unnerving production of the show, directed by Matthew LaChiusa of the plucky American Repertory Theatre of Western New York, is now running in Buffalo East.

Letts, who went on to theater-world superstardom with his hit "August: Osage County," was already challenging himself when he wrote "Killer Joe." The play, about a poor Texas family's ill-conceived plan to dispense with its vile materfamilias, does not feature the mother in question except in the crudest possible way.

This play does not produce any of the guilty satisfaction one might get from watching a cruel villain earn and finally receive her comeuppance. Instead, the piece forces our gaze onto the desperate desires and dire circumstances of a family driven to an ignominious and ultimately fateful decision. It brings us face-to-face with the human survival instinct and the dark places it often leads.

Young Chris Smith (Patrick Cameron), a good-hearted but directionless small-time drug dealer owes big money to some local thugs. Out of equal parts desperation and spite, Chris and his slow-witted father Ansel (Scot Kaitanowski) hire a hit man to rub out Chris' detested mother for her life insurance money. The man for the job is the titular Killer Joe (David C. Mitchell), an impossibly menacing police detective whose side business involves devising innovative ways to fit dead people into plastic garbage bags.

With no money to pay Killer Joe, Chris and Ansel -- with the consent of Ansel's conniving wife Sharla (Stephanie Bax) -- allow him to take Chris' younger sister Dottie (Jessica Wegrzyn) as sexual barter until the insurance money comes through. All of this turns out to be just as bad an idea as it sounds, but it makes for seriously compelling and uncomfortable drama.

LaChiusa's direction is sloppy here. Some scenes, especially those requiring more than two characters to interact at the same time, come across as under-rehearsed and beg for a more measured approach in order to exploit their full dramatic potential.

Fortunately, the strength of the material and performances from Mitchell, Wegrzyn and Kaitanowski overcome the muddled execution that sometimes characterizes ART productions. Mitchell's deadly stare and unsettling stage presence drive the production, and he milks his character's severity and menace for all it's worth. Wegrzyn, as the seemingly innocent young Dottie, is captivating pretty much from start to finish.

"Killer Joe" is an impressive first effort from a young playwright who went on to even more astounding achievements in the American theater. And this production, despite its rough-around-the-edges quality, makes it easy to see why.



"Killer Joe"    

3 stars (out of 4)    

WHEN: Through May 5    

WHERE: Buffalo East, 1410 Main St.    

TICKETS: $12 to $15    

INFO: 634-1102 or