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Photos by Stage Photography of Tampa LLC—SPOT
(L-R) Heather Krueger, Jonelle Meyer and Susan Haldeman in 'Smell Of the Kill,' which runs through Feb. 26, 2023 at Stageworks Theatre in Tampa, Florida.
"The Smell of the Kill" by Michele Lowe roared into Stageworks Theatre last weekend like the Real Housewives of the Chicago ‘Burbs presenting the Schadenfreude Comedy Hour. If you aren’t familiar with this descriptive word used in the TONY-winning musical “Avenue Q, it’s German for deriving pleasure from the misfortune of others—which is a sad commentary on human nature. Perhaps, though, it’s even Darwinian. Are we programmed by evolution’s survival of the fittest to gloat emotionally?
Director Karla Hartley has assembled three of the region’s top flight female comedians to play long suffering wives lassoed into monthly reunions by their Neanderthal husbands, who were once college roommates, but (surprise) don’t really like each other. Every stereotype of bad male behavior is dialed up to eleven. The men are barely human; indeed they don’t even appear, but are instead portrayed by disembodied offstage voices that are clearly recorded. This only reinforces the “otherness” of the men who don’t fare well. Actually, the women are not much better. They’re selfish, petty, and delusional.
Scott Cooper’s expansive upscale kitchen/dining room set is a suburban HGTV cathedral, gobbling up the Stageworks space as a celebration of conformity and blandness. It honors the stultifying lives lived in this “model home,” where nothing is what it seems. One dominant feature is a huge six-panel skylight which glows a Satanic-red (courtesy of Ms. Hartley who also designed the lighting).
The play—which runs select dates through Feb. 26 in downtown Tampa
—is actually a hilarious portrait of suburban hell. Ms. Lowe shoots arrows through all manor of human foibles. I don’t want to say too much; that would spoil the many surprises. But when one spouse is facing prison after being caught embezzling a shitload of dollars and decides to brag to his best buds by visiting his subterranean meat locker, what could possibly go wrong? People gossip behind their friends’ backs, secrets are heard through a baby monitor, monogamy takes a big hit, as do differing parenting styles and military school. Friendship is strained, class blindness is on full display, envy gallops apace and passion dies. There’s even consideration of heaven and just which actions might damn you to hell.
It’s not a subtle evening. There are slapstick echoes of the iconic “I Love Lucy” chocolate factory scene, only this time it’s an ever flowing stream of golf balls that threaten to upend our heroines. They manage to emerge triumphant, only to create a bizarre treat with mounds of Cool Whip and multiple spoons. There’s a startling gunshot that stops time and multiple excuses to expose voluptuous, heaving bosoms struggling for cover against expensive lingerie. “Are we all taking off our clothes?”
It’s disheartening, perhaps, to admit that seemingly normal people are capable of horrible homicidal thoughts. And maybe even more disquieting that as this tale becomes gradually ever so twisted, bizarre, and shocking, that the laughs build into seismic waves that rock the very foundation of Stageworks Channelside home for 75 minutes under Ms. Hartley’s brisk direction.
The three performers create distinct, interesting (if troubled) characters who mine the script for all its subversive verbal and physical comedy. Heather Krueger (Nicky) who also designed the appropriately ugly outerwear covering sexy lingerie, is the sharp tongued catalyst. She’s a driven career woman who’s happy to outsource care of her crying baby, and doesn’t mind offending her guests or snatching a fistful of dripping greens from the garbage to make a point.
Susan Haldeman’s (Debra) apparently docile stay-at-home wife and mother starts as the moral compass of the play, but evolves her thinking as secrets are revealed and she has to grapple with her future. And the pseudo-naive Jonelle Meyer (Molly) is a daffy presence as part of a couple who smother each other with love, but whose passion is sputtering. Meyer is often cast in over the top roles, but here she’s more vulnerable than I’ve seen her previously and when she finally accepts her true feelings and turns downstage directly to address the audience, she explodes in a horrific speech that only elicits more laughter as she gets progressively graphic.
Critics noted that “the domestic politics seem seriously out-of-date” even for the 2002 Broadway production. Hurling a dinner plate through the kitchen door so that it flies across the stage and practically explodes is a wonderfully theatrical, yet boorish machismo behavior echoing Stanley Kowalski of the late 1940’s. Our society has grown and there’s greater mutual respect between partners. But relationships are still hard and require diligence to remain lively.
Luckily, I hope you know that “Real Housewives” are all for show, and aren’t so “real” after all.
So it is here, if you can get past the anachronisms, there are laughs aplenty.