Three wives contemplate offing their hubbies in The Smell of the Kill,
Cortland Repertory’s black comedy
By James MacKillop
Being wives is the only bond the three women have. Their unseen husbands, old school chums, demand that they all get together for dinner once a month. When the boys retire to another room to boast about golf or hunting, not to mention tormenting the cat, the girls are thrown together in the kitchen, cleaning up, pretending to be pals. Sisterhood is elusive. But looming trouble reshapes all the dynamics. One husband has just been indicted for embezzlement and wants his wife to give up the job she loves so that her pension plan can keep them afloat. If one woman’s life is now vulnerable, why not all of them?
The dilemmas thrust upon three notso-friendly women may sound familiar to local audiences because Michele Lowe’s The Smell of the Kill premiered at Syracuse Stage in January 2000, two years before it opened on Broadway. After that came a trek through American regional theaters until it landed this month at Cortland Repertory Theatre. Some may remember the show as controversial as The Post-Standard critic David Reilly objected to a certain moment in the action, among other things; needless to say, Reilly’s no longer with the paper. That moment has been snipped, perhaps long ago. What remains is a hearty black comedy that generously showcases the talents of three actresses with proven track records in Cortland.
Lethal ladies: From left, Charlotte Fox, Morgan Reis and Erica
Livingston in Cortland Repertory’s The Smell of the Kill.
Before we learn of the husbands’ manifest shortcomings (embezzlement is only the first), playwright Lowe generates some of her heartiest laughter in the abrasions between the three women. In this regard Smell of the Kill has something in common with the three cheerleaders in Jack Heifner’s Vanities and the sisters in Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart.
We learn first about sleek, brunette professional Nicky (Morgan Reis), wife of the embezzling Jay (played offstage by Kim Hubbard, as do the other actors portraying the husbands), through the choices scenic designer Jonathan Wentz has made for her state-of-the-art kitchen in one of Chicago’s more affluent though unnamed suburbs. She’s a book editor with two assistants and is more than a bit put off that the other two don’t seem to read or ever ask her about any titles.
Zaftig Debra (Erica Livingston) once sold real estate but has retired to total immersion in domesticity. Her deference to hubby Marty (Mark Re) sounds written to make a feminist cringe. It’s as if she has given the biblical admonition about being “submissive” a full secular application.
Lastly, blonde cookie Molly (Charlotte Fox) embodies all the insouciant leisure the other women are prepared to despise. She’s a trophy wife of the successful Danny (David Huber) and never does much of anything because, as she indifferently admits, she came from privilege and doesn’t have to worry about things.
Any comedy set in the suburbs can look like a sitcom, and playwright Lowe surely knew that the curbside view of The Smell of the Kill could encourage such a perception. To counter that, she has each of the women reveal hidden or suppressed secrets that both alter our view of them and their relationship with one another.
Although the men are a continuing raucous presence, throwing plates and golf balls into the kitchen, it is in the women’s exposition that we learn what’s going on. Nicky confesses to Molly that Debra’s supposedly blameless husband Marty once tried to grope her. Then Molly, for whom unwanted male attention would be a common thing, says Marty once tried to grope her too but (two-beat pause) she doesn’t quite remember. In thinking of the men, the women remember continuing annoyances, like having to prepare dinner when the husbands have more important things to do—like reading the newspaper.
Increased revelations of the women’s characters are paralleled by their more visible bodies. When Nicky’s child upchucks on her dress, she takes it off and sports a bright red teddy for the rest of the action, underscoring her role as her husband’s would-be plaything. With thrown drinks, somehow both the other women doff their blouses as well. Cynically this may look like payback to men in the audience for all the male-bashing, but it might also emblemize sharing, a triad of cleavages.
Two minor actions from Nicky focus the resolve of the women. In one Nicky collects the golf balls rolled into the kitchen, places them in a large glass bowl and covers them with gooey whipped cream: inedible and now unusable. When asked about the news story of her husband’s embezzle ment, Nicky opens a broom closet so that we can see where she has spiked the clipping to the door with a carving knife: vengeance with a weapon stronger than cream.
Opportunity knocks (literally) when all the men file downstairs to the $7,000 meat locker Jay purchased without consulting with wife Nicky. All the men are avid hunters, and they want to admire the dressed carcasses. Once the men are inside, the door swings shut, trapping them. The women don’t know at first until they hear a thumping through the floor. The questions are: how quickly should they act? Or should they act at all?
Nothing like a life and death situation to raise tension. And nothing like tension to reveal character.
From this point on director Tony Capone is pulling the maximum out of three players with deep resources. Morgan Reis (a Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) nominee for Leading Ladies three summers ago) gets her share of crackling good lines but has perhaps the shortest arc to span as she has become the instigator. Reis’ razor-sharp delivery is well augmented by a mobile face that veers from cajoling sweetness to resolute homicide. The others need to be driven.
Charlotte Fox’s comedic abilities already scored wonderfully with her Roxie Hart in Chicago, but this is a different kind of not-so-dumb blonde. Ditziness turns out to be a pose and a defense in what she reveals to be an empty marriage that has driven her to take up taboo hobbies. Fox’s ability to dazzle with line after line gives this production its glow.
Which switches the moral weight to homebody Debra, and also gives actress Erica Livingston so much to run with, so much agony to plumb. Livingston has appeared in four previous CRT shows, most recent the zippy farce Rumors in June. What she has to do here is harder: suffer an onstage emotional breakdown while the other two women are pulling in the laughs.
The Smell of the Kill represents a small risk for Cortland Repertory, which has built a following with shows where audiences know what to expect going in: musicals, mysteries and farces. High standards of production, including Eric Behnke’s lighting and Jimmy Johansmeyer’s costumes, are now guaranteed. But to know whether you want to cheer or jeer three dames contemplating murder, you have to be there.
This production runs through Saturday, Aug. 27. See Times Table for information.