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New York City Theater

"The Killer"
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn

Those sounds of raucous audience laughter at the revival of Eugène Ionesco’s “The Killer” come not from the heart but the mind. The author’s absurdist riffs on language and misunderstanding, on conformity and the terrors of existence, encourage chuckles. Yet there is menace beneath the amusement, comments on the hopelessness and helplessness of the tragic human condition.

While director Darko Tresnjak’s production, using Michael Feingold’s new translation, gets much of the humor, it only flittingly hints at the tearful tragedy. To be sure, Tresnjak injects alarm at the end of acts, undercutting the humor, when he has shadowy, confrontational figures emerge to remind us that this is as much murder mystery as satire.

Our hero, Bérenger, is amazed at the pristine cleanliness of the radiant city he visits with its architect. Beautiful flowers, an endless blue sky and no rain are some of the attributes of this marvelous place. Ah, but there’s a thorn on the bush in the form of a killer on the loose, an elusive man who drowns his victims. Bérenger, determined to find out who he is, paradoxically winds up his enabler. Evil is evil, motiveless and irrational.

Mirages turn out to be real and no agreement exists between the internal and external. In a purposeless, Kafkaesque world, life is gratuitous and illogical. To make this work – as it worked in Ionesco’s classic “Rhinoceros,” “The Chairs,” “The Lesson” and “The Bald Soprano” – requires less self-consciousness than presented in this Theater for a New Audience rendering. The production lacks tension and urgency, although, admittedly, it’s a talky, purposely mundane work to begin with.

Under the circumstances, the actors struggle, except for Kristine Nielsen and Robert Stanton. She is both a dippy concierge and Ma Piper, keeper of the public geese, while he is the self-important architect. As Bérenger, the excellent actor Michael Shannon seems adrift, not helped by the long duologue with Paul Sparks’ dull Edward in Act Two.

The physical production’s bare stage, bold lighting and weird music and sounds promise a more startling experience than delivered. At three hours, “The Killer” turns out to be as pedestrian as Bèrenger’s bourgeois morality.

--David A. Rosenberg
June 6, 2014

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