Eugene Ionesco’s play, The Killer, is rarely produced, and I think I understand the reason. It’s over-long (particularly the third act, which feels interminable), highly abstract (the principal character is taken to speechifying in airy generalities about his experience), and yet also distinctly dated (the intimations of incipient fascism in Ma Piper’s politician campaign feel rooted in France in the 1950s, and have nothing like the universal resonance of the transformations in Rhinoceros).
But the core of the play is a meditation on original sin understood as perversity, a notion ideally suited to Ionesco’s theater of the absurd. And the Theater for a New Audience’s current production is an excellent opportunity to experience this notion played out on stage.
The Killer begins with Ionesco’s everyman character, Berenger (Michael Shannon), arriving in a new “Radiant City,” a thoroughly planned urban development in a part of his city that he’s never been to. The name and era suggests a Le Corbusier-esque modernist utopia, but the town as described sounds more like something out of “The Truman Show” – roses, manicured lawns, beautiful brickwork, and a crystal dome that keeps out all foul weather (the roses are watered by drip irrigation). (Wisely, designer Suttirat Larlarb shows us none of this – the Radiant City exists entirely in our mind’s eye.) Berenger, escorted by the Architect (Robert Stanton), the civil servant responsible for creating this utopia, comes to life in the space, connecting it with an experience in his childhood of a kind of euphoria in which he perceived the world as radiant, and experience that, although he never felt anything like it again, kept him going through the pointless tedium of mundane life. But here, perhaps, here he could have such an experience on a daily basis.
Berenger is so carried away, he falls in love, or something resembling it, with the architect’s pretty blonde assistant, Dennie (Stephanie Bunch), who arrives on the scene announcing she’s going to quit – against the Architect’s most strenuous advice. By the end of the scene, during which Dennie not only doesn’t return Berenger’s affections but barely takes note of his existence, Berenger is convinced they are engaged. He determines to buy a house in this perfect city in which they might live together.
And then, immediately after agreeing to purchase a house in the community, the whole vision comes crashing down. It turns out there’s a serial killer on the loose in this ideal environment, whose method is to lure people (always in threes: a man, a woman and a child) to a lagoon, and shove them in. People have grown so frightened that they generally don’t leave their houses, and are moving out of the neighborhood en masse, but still the killer never lacks for victims. His most recent victim: Dennie.
Berenger is appalled, heartbroken, distraught that his vision of happiness has been so thoroughly violated. He demands that something be done – but the Architect breezily avers that all possible steps have already been taken, to no avail. After a depressing dinner with the Architect at a pub by the bus station, he trudges home, back to the dreary rainy city that he left – but determined to bring the killer to justice, somehow. End of Act I.
It’s a marvelous beginning to the play, anchored by two splendid performances. Stanton’s Architect is a picture of punctilious perfectionism, quietly proud of his creation but never smug, smiling blandly at Berenger even as we can tell that he desperately wants to get back to the office. (The Architect’s dialogue with Berenger is repeatedly interrupted by calls from the office, which the Architect answers by pulling a ’50s-era corded phone out of his pocket. Whether this is Ionesco’s prescient original direction, or director Darko Tresnjak’s brainstorm, it brilliantly revitalizes what has become a cliche in our cellular age.) And I applaud Tresnjak for the decision to cast Shannon against type as Berenger. Looking at Shannon’s craggy, pitted face, we feel how he has been oppressed by ordinary life, and there’s something so incongruous about seeing Shannon skip about the stage in glee and prostrate himself before his beloved Dennie – he makes Berenger come alive as a specific character, and therefore makes him more universal than he would be if played by a more obvious naif.
You can see, I’m sure, why I describe this play as a meditation on original sin, the Radiant City alluding obviously to the Garden of Eden, the killer as the serpent in the grass (who seduces his victims rather than merely surprising them). Ionesco would seem to be satirizing our efforts to get back to that garden, mocking, along with our Promethean presumption, our specifically male presumption to see every woman as a potential Eve. (Berenger’s overtures to Dennie come off as especially creepy in the age of Elliot Rodger, and connect him, surreptitiously, to the killer, who, Berenger suspects in Act III, has his own “issues” with having been rejected by women.)
But that kind of satire is secondary to Ionesco’s primary aim. From the moment we learn about the killer’s existence, Ionesco unsettles us by making him seem, well, silly. How does the killer lure his victims to their deaths? He tries begging, and selling them trifles, but this never works. What works is offering to show them a picture of “the Colonel.” This, the Architect informs us, nobody is able to resist. Why? We have no idea, and the play has no interest in telling us. The point is its absurdity.
We finally get to see this Colonel’s picture in Act II, when Berenger comes home to his dingy flat (under the management of the Concierge, played by the always delightful Kristine Nielsen, who doubles as the proto-fascist politician Ma Piper in Act III), and finds his perennially unwell friend, Edward (a deliciously Renfieldian Paul Sparks), waiting for him. Edward, to Berenger’s surprise, seems to know all about the killer. This knowledge becomes less surprising when we learn that Edward’s briefcase, which he is loathe to let leave his hand, contains all the materials connected to the killer – a map of the Radiant City marked where the killer has struck, a diary detailing his attacks, the trinkets the killer tries to sell, and dozens of photos of that Colonel. Edward expresses mystification as to how all of this material came to be in his possession – and Berenger, surprisingly, never suspects him. Instead he enlists his aid to bring these materials to the police so they can finally catch the killer.
Act III, the weakest act by far, consists of Berenger’s continually-frustrated attempts to reach the police, and to recover the briefcase (which Edward sneakily avoids taking with him when they leave Berenger’s flat), and then of his solitary confrontation with the killer. Berenger attempts, at length, to convince the killer that his career of crime is absurd, using a variety of psychological philosophical frameworks, even venturing into Christian theology, to no avail. The killer does nothing but laugh in response. This, along with the satire of Ma Piper, is the most thuddingly obvious part of the play, the point being that the primal urge to kill not only cannot be reasoned out of us, but cannot even be comprehended.
But to me, the heart of the matter is that photo of the Colonel, which points to a different absurdity, a different perversity. It’s not only that our urge to kill is irrational and perverse. Our victimhood, our susceptibility temptation, is even more ludicrous. What does us in is not the promise of worldly wealth and fame, not sexual or delirious experience. What none of us can resist is a completely unexceptional photo of a mustachioed officer.
The Killer plays at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center through June 29th.