Review by Dennis Kempton
The Duluth Playhouse debuted its “Women in Theatre” series of plays with a production of Michele Lowe’s The Smell of the Kill, a show about three dissatisfied suburban housewives who debate killing their husbands.
Billed as a dark comedy, there’s nothing deliciously wicked or macabre in the shortcomings of Lowe’s script. In a formulaic and cliched rendering of the long-suffering theme of “our husbands are jerks, we’re unhappy, let’s drink and make fun of them and complain endlessly” Lowe plays around, but never too deeply, with the real-life problems couples encounter during the courses of some marriages, but in a way that is, ironically, considering the “Women in Theatre” umbrella here, a puzzling choice.
The play opens with three women, Nicky (Victoria Main), Debra (Jean Sramek), and Molly (Sara Marie Sorenson) sitting the Nicky’s kitchen post monthly dinner date where the three couples get together. The husbands, never seen, but most definitely heard, remain offstage, tossing golf balls and hurling commands and insults through the kitchen door to their wives. The entirety of the action on stage takes place in the well-crafted kitchen, the most impressive aspect of the production, without doubt. Soon enough, we are privy to the inner turbulence of each character and the unhappiness each woman suffers in their marriages.
Granted, at least two of the three characters in the play are razor-sharp, intelligent and witty women. Victoria Main’s Nicky is a hard-nosed editor married to an embezzler on his way to the big house. Nicky’s anger bubbles on the surface of Main’s performance, but we never get the fine-tuning that comes with a fully realized performance. Even in dark comedy, the delight is in the layering of emotions present in the characters’ madness, anguish, and conflicted emotions. Instead, Lowe goes for the cheap laughs: an article about Nicky’s husband “pinned” to the door with a butcher knife. With an actress as good with her comedic timing and delivery as Main, it’s an injustice she doesn’t delve deeper for the big something extra needed to drive her performance home.
The same can be said for Sara Marie Sorenson as the ditzy, lascivious, and unabashed adulterer, Molly. Her marital beef is that her husband isn’t all that interested in having sex with her and Molly badly wants a baby–so much so that she jumps at the opportunity to check on Nicky’s baby every time we hear the child cry through the baby monitor set atop the kitchen counter. Sorenson’s Molly titters about on-stage, bemoaning, but not quite conveying the feeling associated with, her husband’s lacking libido even though he smothers her with parental-like attention. Lost are moments to pull something, even a little, from the depths, that would bring the audience with her to the point where she could fathom the depths it would take to leave her husband locked in the meat locker. Yes, a meat locker, in the basement–this is the fate of all three husbands while their wives, above, seriously, in a shallow, comedic bending of reason, take up the possibility of leaving them locked within to die.
Jean Sramek’s performance as Debra is the saving grace of the play. With the generosity of the playwright coupled with the deftness of Sramek’s acting ability, we get to see some bit of agonizing and consequential underpinning to what is happening with these three women. Lowe’s weak writing, at one point, has Debra at the point of a gun wielded by Nicky. Of course, Debra seems to take this as something only a tad askew to her daily life experience and missed are the opportunities in direction, script, and performance to bring the audience down into the abyss for even a moment that would make the premise of doing away with their husbands something deliciously wicked. Sramek’s doubting of Nicky and Molly’s plan with the moral questioning of her soul going to hell is the only bit of meat we get in an otherwise empty comedy.
The pacing is brisk and the stage business is entertaining enough and that’s testament to the best efforts of the actresses on stage – all three are obviously capable of much more than what is going on with The Smell of the Kill. The costuming by Kate Stephen and Izzy Bogen is well-executed as is the set construction and lighting design. But, Andre Breton, the Surrealist theoretician who coined the “black comedy” term as a sub-genre of comedy and satire, would only see the veneer of dark comedy in this play. There comes a point where this type of comedy transcends and becomes true theatre or rests lazily on the sit-com trap of relying solely on dialogue and banal, stale stereotypes. Unfortunately, the writing for this play is a tired illustration of the latter, with this production putting three otherwise talented women on stage in a storyline that, culturally, has been perpetuated for at least 30 years and is in desperate need of retirement. One is hard-pressed, even in the suspension of disbelief theatre might require, to understand how intelligent women can be portrayed the way they are in this script. The only reasonable course of action in executing this play on stage would have been to go full-tilt into the disturbing crazy skid. With so many enticing possibilities in the staging and performance, ultimately, the play comes in underweight as a dark comedy of any real substance.
THE SMELL OF THE KILL. By Michele Lowe. Directed by Pat Castellano for the Duluth Playhouse at the Play Ground, 11 East Superior Street, Duluth. With Victoria Main, Jean Sramek, and Sara Marie Sorenson. The production runs Thursdays through Saturdays through March 26. Curtain time: 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. This review was based on the opening night performance.