The Smell of the Kill by Michele Lowe. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Set designed by David Gallo. Costumes designed by David C. Woolard. Lighting designed by Kenneth Posner. Cast: Lisa Emery, Claudia Shear, Jessica Stone.
The current Broadway season is clearly doing its best to demonstrate that no topic for comedy is taboo.
A couple of weeks ago, Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? opened, and it can debated whether or not it's supposed to be a comedy, but it's darn funny. Now, only a block away at the Helen Hayes Theatre, we're faced with another new play, Michelle Lowe's The Smell of The Kill. Unlike Albee's play, Lowe's doesn't deal with anything as bad as bestiality. Her topic is just murder.
To be fair, the entire play isn't about the attempts of three women - played by Claudia Shear, Lisa Emory, and Jessica Stone - to kill their husbands. That's just where it ends up. There's plenty of maneuvering necessary to get to that point, so when it happens, you're sort of surprised, but it's more like the surprise you experience from an episode of a TV sitcom you've never seen, but feel like you've known for a dozen years.
For example: When the three womens' husbands (portrayed only as menacing offstage voices by Patrick Garner and Mark Lotito), upset at not having dessert, pelt them with golf balls, Nicky (Emery) turns right around, throws the golf balls in a bowl, and pours whipped cream over them for a culinary masterpiece. Audience laughs. At another point, we see an article about Nicky's embezzling husband that Nicky has attached to the inside of the broom closet door. How is it stuck there? With a knife. Audience laughs.
It's only fair to say, though, that Lowe knows what she's doing; The Smell of the Kill comes across as a well written and characterized sitcom. The women, though they appear to be stock characters at first, are wholly realized. Molly may seem to be hopelessly in love with her Danny, but their relationship's dark undercurrents are visible from the beginning, Nicky is devoted to her troublesome Jay from the start, and Debra is always a fragile personality hidden within a confident façade.
None of these are entirely throwaway characters, and the actresses are hardly content with throwaway portrayals. Shear, in particular, gives lessons on comedy a number of other comic actresses around town could learn from. She knows comedy is funniest when it's rooted in truth, and she rightfully tears up the stage in her descent from sanity to madness. She's the one to watch. Emery and Stone both have great comic moments, with deadpan and understatement making them very funny as well.
It's the actresses who give Lowe's characters what depth they have onstage. Shear, Emery, and Stone may be relegated to telling jokes about one-handed piano players, taking off their shirts (all three women do), or debating traditional concepts of stay-at-home motherhood, but they find a way to make it work. It's only in their overly capable hands that The Smell of the Kill stops being television and starts being theatre. Once the focus reverts to the dialogue, you may as well be in a Hollywood studio audience instead of a Broadway theatre audience.
Director Christopher Ashley does everything he can with the script, bringing plenty of nervous comic tension to the situation. Unfortunately, he simply can't hide the fact that there just isn't much substance to this play. You can have three great actresses like Shear, Emery, and Stone, you can a director like Ashley, and you can have a brilliant set (the skewed-perspective kitchen of David Gallo), but you can't escape the basic fact of The Smell of the Kill: It's not dark comedy, not black comedy, and certainly not serious comedy. It's just comedy. Empty comedy.
When it comes to this play, that's the thing to remember. Lots and lots of people are going to find this very funny. The audience at the performance I attended sure did - bursts of laughter would ripple through the house on every one of Lowe's meticulously calculated laugh lines. The play seems targeted primarily at middle-aged women, but audience members of all ages were breaking up. Simple, zany solutions to complex problems are always funny even, apparently, when they involve outright murder.
So, if that's what you're looking for, go see The Smell of the Kill - you'll love it. I just can't promise you're not going to find yourself watching TV some night soon and see a show with many of the same jokes that comes across as funny - or funnier - than what you paid $70 to see at the Helen Hayes.