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Kill Floor

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Nicholas L. Ashe and Marin Ireland
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Think cows heading to slaughter have it bad? That's nothing compared to the human characters in Kill Floor, the new play by Abe Koogler that just opened at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater in an LCT3 production. If anything, those cows have it easy, because shortly after they're herded in the direction of their ultimate destination, their pain will end. But the people who orbit them and each other—their agony goes on and on, in a seemingly endless cycle.

This is a bleak world indeed, and not one that either Koogler or his director, Lila Neugebauer, has much interest in shedding lasting light on. When you're at the bottom of the economic spectrum—and thus at the bottom of the social spectrum—there's not much to see other than more of the same ahead. And, though he stumbles a bit along the way, and quite a lot at the end, Koogler chillingly communicates just how powerful a force this is, and how difficult it is to spin away from.

Andy (Marin Ireland) at least begins with some hope. She's just been released from jail after five years and hopes to pick up her life more or less where it left off: with her son, Brendan, whom she's entrusted to two family friends. (Dad has long been out of the picture.) But to take care of Brendan, and herself, she needs work, and she can find it only at the Parnell slaughterhouse, where a high school acquaintance of hers, named Rick (Danny McCarthy) is the manager, and looking for someone to nudge the cows ahead so they can be skinned and... well, best not to dwell on that part.

After accepting and beginning the job, Andy frequently appears clad in extensive clothing smattered, splattered, and even drenched with blood, though one suspects that this ex-con could deal with the discoloration. It's that the job itself slowly begins to strangle her soul, and both it and Rick defy her attempts to improve conditions for both the plant's bovine and human inhabitants. After a time, Rick even appears willing to promote her to shut her up—though that might have as much to do with the owner's racist inclinations (he'd rather advance a white woman than the many Mexicans on the payroll) and his long-aborning desire to sleep with Andy, even though she's married herself and not exactly eager to destroy his marriage.

Natalie Gold and Marin Ireland
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Hints of a friendship are kindled between Andy and a woman named Sarah (Natalie Gold) she randomly meets while grocery shopping, but she has problems of her own and an attitude—or at least an outlook—that threatens to mesh poorly with Andy's. Similar, if even more unsettling differences, arise between Brendan (Nicholas L. Ashe), who it turns out is half-black, and his white-but-acts-black friend Simon (Samuel H. Levine), who seems to like Brendan from the high-quality pot and frequent oral sex he's willing to provide, but is less willing to return the favors or the feelings behind them.

Koogler paints a dynamic but unforgiving picture of life on this particular edge, and Neugebauer has staged it in stark, emotionally claustrophobic terms. (The set, by Daniel Zimmerman, is wide but confined, and appropriately unsettling in how smoothly it transitions between the slaughterhouse and ostensibly friendlier climes; Ben Stanton's lights likewise threaten to slash the skin with each drastic change they make.) Though this is Koogler's professional playwriting debut, he displays a keen sense of voice with regards to the awkwardness beneath everyday expression, and has structured the 90-minute play's many two-person scenes with an almost surgical precision that reinforces the discomfort all these people have in dealing with each other. There's a sense of thoughts being constantly interrupted, yes, but much of the time no one convinces you the thoughts were worth thinking in the first place. To them, their lot and their prospects are just that worthless.

But for all that Koogler does well, and for the obvious talent he displays that should be nurtured, Kill Floor is not at all satisfying. The tripping-over-language style, though bracing in the early scenes when it's still new, loses most of its impact when it's all you ever hear. (The longest "speeches," to the extent they can be called that, are Brendan's, and even those are at their best meanderings through his own troubled perceptions.) Koogler ably draws disquieting parallels between Brendan and Andy's paths, but does so with a heavy hand rather than the subversive touch that might be more affecting. And, though Koogler undoubtedly wants to highlight the violently cyclical nature of the pair's fraught relationship, his stopping point for the action feels too nakedly arbitrary to arouse any sense of finality at all. Accidentally deleting the last 20 pages of the script wouldn't have played more random.

Such infelicities result in that unique paradox of a play that's loaded with a compelling story but does not in itself compel, and is filled with precisely articulated characters who convey little in the way of pulsing blood beneath their skin; this leaves the actors underequipped for the task of rounding out their roles. Ashe, Levine, and McCarthy are all solid, but don't have that many nuances to explore. And despite having the least amount of stage time, Gold brings a haunted compassion to Sarah that reveals her as someone like Andy, but whose choices worked out slightly differently.

As for Ireland, she infuses Andy with enough pain to let us see why she's hollowed out inside: She's been forced to fight herself just as much those around her, and Ireland's calculated movements and gentle but stern line deliveries unveil plenty of bruises and scrapes that just haven't healed properly. All of that has built up to make Andy the pitiful, disjointed creature she is, and she's lashing out against her lack of options. Ireland's portrayal is rooted in frustration and flattens out after a while, but it makes something sharper out of what's naturally fuzzy.

For Koogler to live up to the promise he displays here, he needs to expand and deepen his focus, and be willing to give us more to view, more to gnaw on, while still maintaining a grasp on the mystery he so clearly loves. We don't need all the answers; heck, most theatregoers probably don't want all the answers. But too often we're like the Parnell cows: moving blind, waiting for the crack of completion that never arrives. The difference is, the cows don't need to know where they're going or why their journey matters. We do. And that's what Koogler hasn't provided in Kill Floor.

Kill Floor
Through November 15
Claire Tow Theater (Lincoln Center Theater's newest stage), 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets and current performance schedule: Telecharge

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