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Theater Review: Ionesco’s The Killer Is Confusing and Unskippable

Unable to get much attention amid pre-Tony hysteria and post-Tony exhaustion, some Off Broadway companies seem to take advantage of the blackout to dump inventory. Be warned: June is therefore littered, like May before it, with pointless, wayward, or cadaverous plays. How gratifying, then, to find the Theater for a New Audience doubling down on its serious mission with some unreconstructed midcentury Ionesco. And though The Killer remains perplexing and even a bit annoying after 55 years, it’s surely the season’s must-see, must-fail-to-understand theatrical event.

Ionesco, you feel, would not have minded the shrugging: Bewilderment is both his style and his point. He dramatizes it here in the character of Berenger, a weather-beaten everyman who also appears in later Ionesco works like Rhinoceros and Exit the King. In The Killer, we meet him as he tours a new Paris neighborhood of perfect homes and permablue skies: a place, the architect tells him, where the roofs are waterproofed not because it rains but “as a matter of principle.” With its quasi-totalitarian bureaucracy and atmosphere of vague dread, this civic paradise could be taken for a dystopic Big Brotherland; not for nothing does Darko Tresnjak’s stunning production begin with a rotating atomic-alert signal projected on the floor and ominous belches of vapor emanating from grates. Even so, Ionesco wants us to see the architect’s creation the way Berenger does, as a “radiant city”: an actual wonder, not an ironic one. 

The problem with this scary utopia — and perhaps we’re meant to feel that all utopias are inherently scary — is external: A serial killer is on the loose. Each day he murders as many as three locals, using the same ridiculous technique: He interests them in a picture of a colonel, then, as they look at it, pushes them into a lagoon. Berenger, in Michael Shannon’s beautifully questing, coulda-been-a-contender performance, is horrified by this violation of the values of civilized society and also by the general lack of concern about it. He cannot understand why the police have given up trying to stop the murders. Or why people don’t seem very afraid. The architect, who is not in danger because the killer does not attack civil servants, only minds that the mayhem has made selling the remaining homes in the neighborhood more difficult. 

If you try to force the play’s dramatic situations to align directly or even metaphorically with reality, you are bound to fail: That’s the nature of the absurd style. You have to accept that its logic is a closed loop. The loops are longer here than in earlier Ionesco works like The Bald Soprano, whose rules seem to expire line by nutty line. Here the rules apply until Ionesco hits reset at each intermission. Act One is basically an orderly if surreal dialogue between Berenger and the architect: a Magritte painting come to life. (Robert Stanton as the architect is marvelously blasé.) But Act Two, in which Berenger confronts a sickly friend who seems to have evidence about the crime in his briefcase, is a Kafka fever dream. (Paul Sparks is hilariously creepy in the role.) And most of Act Three is vaudeville, with alternating bits and shticks that satirize politics, the police, and anything else within earshot. Let’s just say that bug-eyed Kristine Nielsen shows up as a demagogue called the Goose Woman, promising soup for all if elected and looking like Kim Jong-il. 

I’m not sure we really benefit from so much labored distraction, but eventually it leads to a stunning final scene and the heart of the drama. In a confrontation between ineffectual good and incomprehensible evil, Berenger tries to wheedle the killer into an acceptance of his guilt, or at least into an explanation of his motives. But there are, it seems, no motives. (The play premiered in Paris in 1959 as Tueur sans gages: roughly, Killer Without Contract.) As Berenger runs out of arguments and basically ceases to function, we realize that his line of inquiry — whether evil is just an unavoidable part of nature or an expression of addressable problems in society — is moot. Absurd, in fact. For two-and-a-half acts Ionesco has made you struggle to understand his world only so he can show you at the end that, as in the real world, you can’t. 

It’s an Olympian bait-and-switch, possibly meant to be chuckled over later, with an anesthetic gulp of Pernod. But this production doesn’t allow us the distance necessary for such a reaction. In that sense, Shannon’s tireless commitment to grounding the surreality of the script in a realistically emotional performance is at odds with the other, more comic turns and with the suave gorgeousness of Tresnjak’s staging. The translation by the critic Michael Feingold, late of The Village Voice, is also remarkably smooth, finding perfectly modern ways to sound ever so slightly peculiar. (“Good people, you’ve been deluded,” exclaims the Goose Woman. “We’re going to de-delude you!”) And though you really couldn’t ask for a better rendition of this rarely seen work, it has to be said that the hopelessness of humanity is not a pleasurable, summery theme. Rather, hopelessness being a kind of narcissism, it is only fun until it’s dull. What Berenger admits about his fellow man thus holds true for this worthy three-hour play as well: “I love human beings, but from a distance.”

The Killer is at The Polonsky Shakespeare Center through June 29.