Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2005

The Smell of the Kill by Michele Lowe is a weird, funny, disturbing little play of which I am inordinately fond. It is also a tricky one to write about since it is so short and since surprise is a key element in an audience’s enjoyment of the piece.

Allow me to use an elaborate metaphor to represent the gist of this show. You are given a large, elaborately wrapped gift. As you unwrap it, you discover another, smaller, differently wrapped gift inside, and so on and so on until you finally come to the ultimate box, which, when opened, reveals a brilliant and beautiful diamond ring – still attached to the severed finger of its previous owner. That is how this play works – layer after layer of colorful revelations leading to a conclusion that is simultaneously repulsive and undeniably attractive. And the key question that it essentially raises is: If you received such a ring, would you wear it?

Three suburban Chicago housewives – Nicky (Cathy Lee-Visscher), Debra (Prudence Theriault), and Molly (Jennifer Lyon) – end up faced with a similar moral dilemma towards the conclusion of The Smell of the Kill. Prior to grappling with it, they slowly reveal themselves, physically and emotionally. What they reveal of their marriages and their psyches has a great impact on their ultimate decision.

These three women and their husbands Jay (Matt Sikora), Marty (John Wallace), and Danny (Tracy Trimm), have known each other since college, about 20 years now, which puts them in their early forties. Each month they take turns hosting a dinner party. This month it is Nicky and Jay’s turn. The action of the play takes place in the lovely kitchen of their $1.25 million house. The women are in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner and the men are amusing themselves playing golf and smoking cigars in the other room. They are heard but never seen.

I saw this play in 2001 in a near-perfect production directed by Christopher Ashley at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, with Kristin Johnston of Third Rock fame as Nicky, playwright and actress Claudia Shear (author and original star of Dirty Blonde) as Debra, and Kate Finneran as Molly. That production, with its fabulous set by David Gallo and lighting by Kenneth Posner but minus Johnston and Finneran, made the leap to Broadway, where it had a very brief run in the spring of 2002. I knew that the production at Ghent would not match the razor sharp brilliance of my earlier experience, but I could easily see where The Smell of the Kill would be a compact and snappy show that Ghent could handle nicely, and I was right.

Director Bernardine Handler has cast the female roles well with local veterans, who are much closer in age to Lowe’s characters than the trio I saw previously. Lee-Visscher and Theriault are dependable performers, who don’t disappoint here as the seemingly independent Nicky and the apparently docile Debra. Lyon is sweetly stubborn as the much maligned and pseudo-naïve Molly.

But I question Handler’s decision to cast the three husbands and to allow them a curtain call. There is nothing wrong with the actors she has selected – they are gentlemen whose work I have enjoyed in the past – but for the macabre purposes of Lowe’s plot, I would prefer never to see them. Let some nameless, faceless stagehand read their lines and chuck golf balls across the stage, just don’t let Jay, Marty, and Danny be real to me.

This is a show about long-term monogamous relationships and their effect on women, although I have to say that, from what we learn of them, the men don’t seem to have fared much better or be much happier, which is a key reason that the conclusion of the play is palatable. The marriages depicted are not very happy ones or very modern ones. The Smell of the Kill is set in the present, but the relationships seem more 1960’s than 21st century.

I was very pleased with Kenneth Young’s set design, which gave the women a just-a-little-too-clean-and-cheerful a playground on which to enact their suburban nightmare. Above it all hangs a skylight, referred to frequently as “God’s little window”, but even the omnipresent idea of the ever-watchful eye of the Almighty doesn’t stop this trio of weird women from playing God.

When I saw The Smell of the Kill before I was puzzled and slightly annoyed by the fact that all three women take off their blouses for a period of time during the show. I am always wary of the gratuitous display of the female body, and here it seemed out of kilter with the show’s decided feminist stance. But this time around I understood that the physical stripping was merely symbolic of their characters emotional revelations, and that Lowe intended the display to be an act of empowering freedom from cultural mores and restrictions, rather than a pandering to the voyeuristic male audience. And I think one reason I understood this better this time was that I was seeing three average 40-something women in their bras. Kristin Johnston is a great natural beauty, but she isn’t average. Most middle-aged women look like Lee-Visscher, Theriault, and Lyon, all of whom look just great, by the way. After all my rants about ugly and inappropriate undergarments that appear (intentionally or unintentionally) on stage, these gals stripped to reveal lovely lingerie that enhanced their assets while keeping everything safely and modestly restrained.

This is a great play for girlfriends to see together, or for anyone in a long-term relationship to see with his or her significant other. The first time I saw it with my husband and this time with two other women. My husband just loved it by the way, which proves that, despite its anti-male rhetoric this show does have broad appeal (although it is possible that seeing Kristin Johnston in her bra influenced his opinion slightly). I would not take young children because for them this play would be a scary look at adult relationships to each other and to their offspring.

The Smell of the Kill is performed without an intermission, and Handler managed to bring it in at 90 minutes exactly. Speed is of the essence to this show, which needs to leap out, grab you, and toss you back breathless before you know what has hit you. Handler and her cast were just a tad slow, particularly in the show’s early minutes, but not enough to do any permanent damage to the overall entertainment value of the evening.

The Smell of the Kill runs weekends through October 23, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission and is suitable for ages 14 and up. There is one loud onstage gunshot. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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