By: David Sheward
Though it was written in 1957 and is seldom performed, Eugene Ionesco’s bizarre and absurdist comedy The Killer is a shockingly accurate portrayal of our media-crazed, technology-obsessed society in 2014. Darko Tresnjak’s almost-slapstick production-featuring a sleek and idiomatic translation by critic-adapator Michael Feingold, now at Theater for a New Audience’s elegant Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn-at times has the zany and satiric feel of the best of Woody Allen’s movies. Indeed, Allen may have been influenced by the play in his 1991 feature Shadows and Fog, one of his unfairly ignored pieces.
The plotlines are somewhat similar. In both, a strange, Kafka-esque community is terrorized by an unidentified serial killer whom the hapless hero attempts to capture, only to find himself at the mercy of the fiend. In both works, the protagonist’s lame sleuthing and vain struggles against the irresistible forces of fate, represented by the faceless maniac, result in hilarious comedy.
Berenger, the schlubby everyman who also appears in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, A Stroll in the Air, and Exit the King, has found an idyllic neighborhood not far from the depressing slum where he resides. He’s all ready to move in, but a murderer is slashing his way through this paradise, and the police and government officials have given up trying to stop him. Berenger vows to bring this Jack the Ripper to justice, but he is frustrated by endless obstacles, until he finally confronts the villain and finds there is no stopping him. After trying to placate the monster in a lengthy monologue, pleading for decency and reason, our nebbishy hero shrugs his shoulders, accepts his death, and says "What can you do?"
Michael Shannon, who has enacted his fair share of brutal thugs in movies, plays the victim this time and makes Berenger a lovable but hopeless schlemiel. He’s particularly brilliant in the climactic monologue, which runs close to 10 minutes. Any actor who can hold an audience’s attention for that long with a speech full of repetitive appeals to a figure covered in shadows deserves a standing ovation. The eccentric Kristine Nielsen is screamingly funny as Berenger’s nosy concierge and a brainless political leader who resembles a cross between Sarah Palin and Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. Evoking a creepy Charles Addams cartoon and Peter Lorre at his most sniveling, the riotous Paul Sparks plays Edward, a sickly friend of the hero who might be the killer.
At points, the action has an almost uncanny resemblance to our insane times. In the second of three acts, Berenger finds the murderer’s diary, and its depraved ravings could be those of any of the psychopathic shooters who have blasted their way through movie theaters and college campuses. An eerie chill went up my spine as I was laughing hysterically. That dual sensation is the mark of challenging theater.
June 1-29. Theater for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland place, Brooklyn, N.Y. Tue-Fri 7:30pm, Sat-Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Running time 3 hours and 5 minutes, including two intermissions. (866) 811-4111. www.ovationtix.com Photo: Gerry Goodstein