Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Devilishly Funny Production
The San Francisco Playhouse is presenting the Bay Area premiere of Michele Lowe's diabolical comedy The Smell of the Kill. The dialogue is sharp and clever, and the cast's three actresses are all dandy in the roles of disenchanted wives. This is a good feminist black comedy about how these wives take some pleasure in the evil retribution for the boring, deceitful and supremacist husbands. Les Diaboliques might have influence the playwright; the 1955 Clouzot film had just two conniving women and one husband while Ms. Lowe went all the way with three devious women and three male "bodies." Hitchcock even played around with this idea in The Trouble with Harry.
Michele Lowe's play has been around since it first played at the Cleveland Play House in 1999. The playwright revised the play in 2001 for the Berkshire Theatre Festival where it received good notices. There, Katie Finneran, Claudia Shear and Kristen Johnson played the three scheming wives. The Smell of the Kill opened at the Helen Hayes on Broadway on March 26, 2002 to so-so reviews. Claudia Shear repeated her role along with Jessica Stone and Lisa Emery. Newsday said it was "a deft little anti-love story. Light hearted, cold hearted." The comedy ran only 40 performances. Many regional companies have picked up the play since it is a funny, audience-friendly play that demands vigorous acting. This is the kind of comedy that women will take pleasure in watching while the husbands are wishing they could have watched ESPN that night.
The Smell of the Kill is a fast-paced 80 minute play that can be described as an energetic piece of theater, and these three actresses give these characters a work out - they shout, scream, shove and even wrestle on to the floor. There is a lot of physical acting in the dark comedy. Sometimes the scenes seem just a little too incredible. The men (who don't appear on stage) are tedious, untrustworthy and supremacist louts almost to a point of caricature.
Michele Lowe's farce takes place in the upscale kitchen of the million dollar Chicago suburban home of Nicky (Stacy Ross). Once a month three couples get together in one or the other's house for dinner and drinks. The wives stay in the kitchen cooking, cleaning up, while the boorish husbands play golf and harass their wives from the living room. Nicky's husband has just installed a meat locker in the basement where he freezes the kill from his hunting trips. While Nicky wanted them to purchase a boat, her husband opted for a big meat locker. Nicky's husband is so proud of the frozen room that he gives tours of the basement to all of his friends. Needless to say, you know what is going to happen. Yep, the three husbands somehow "accidentally" get locked in the freezer.
Did Nicky have a hand in this, we wonder? She was down in the basement getting something. She certainly has malice against her husband since he has been found a "criminal" for embezzling seven millions dollars and they are about to lose their house, money and prestige. He is pressuring Nicky to quit her job as an editor to save the family fortune. The other two wives, Molly (Zehra Berkman) and Debra (Susi Damilano), have substantial reasons to hate their hubbies. Molly's husband is possessive to the point where she has to telephone him every two hours. Molly is managing an affair on the side because her husband just does not "have it" anymore. Debra's husband is a womanizer and he hates their only son. So the question is, should the wives leave the husbands in the locker so they can become frozen meat like the hunted animals?
The Smell of the Kill has some incredible scenes, such as the about face of Debra who first resists the other two wives' formulated plan to let the husbands freeze to death, and then suddenly changes her mind after a certain amount of physical action. She finally says "Let him chill." There is a contrivance where the three women become semi-dressed, which is somewhat preposterous and really does not help the plot. It's almost a commercial for Victoria's Secret. The domestic politics seem over the top, especially when you hear two of the husbands yell out rude remarks and even throwing a plate because the wife left it on the living room table. There is a silly scene in which the unseen husbands open fire on the kitchen with golf balls when they find out there is no dessert. The playwright wants to hit us over the head in telling us these guys don't deserve to live.
The three very gifted actresses rescue some excellent moments from this hurried script. Zehra Berkman has a wonderful daffy quality about her acting. Some of her lines are straight out of a television sitcom that would involve an airhead character. Suzi Damilano is exceptional as Debra, the wife who changes her mind oh so quickly. She brings some human warmth to her character. Stacy Ross gives a topnotch performance as Nicky the venomous woman who is out to freeze her husband. She moves about the kitchen like a woman on a mission and she has a thing about frozen peas.
Bill English's direction is deft and he gives each character a clear cut and clearly different personality. Bill also designed the set that is strictly out of "House and Garden." The kitchen is an inspired set which looks like it would be in a million dollar home, completely modern down to the tiniest detail. There is even a skylight in the upper roof area of the stage. You could cook a damn good meal on that set.
The Smell of the Kill reminds me a clever, dark sitcom comedy that would appear on a cable network. (It's a little too risqué for the major networks). The production runs through May 15 at the new Playhouse location at 536 Sutter Street between Powell and Mason, San Francisco. Tickets can be purchased at TicketWeb.com, at the TIX box office on Union Square, or at the Theatre's box office on the night of the show. For reservations, call the Playhouse at 415-677-9596 or e mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Their next production will be the Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones classic The Fantasticks, directed by Dianna Shuster. It opens on June 12.