Every neighborhood has drawbacks. Take the “radiant city” in which Eugène Ionesco sets his play: It offers elegant façades, leafy boulevards, and abundant sunshine in an otherwise gloomy metropolis. The area is quiet; the locals don’t go out much. And it’s affordable — in fact, the vacancy rate is growing. That’s because a homicidal maniac has long roamed these idyllic streets, drowning three residents a day in a nearby lagoon.
Oddly enough, everyone knows what he looks like, which bus stop he frequents, and the ploy he uses to distract his victims. But dwellers have resigned themselves to their community’s terror problem. Most people get used to it after a while.
In The Killer, Ionesco’s rarely staged modern tragedy, Berenger (Michael Shannon), the fumbling antihero, starts out as the only citizen sane enough to question the logic of accepting encroaching evil. By the end, an irrational city brings him to the brink of unreason himself. Ionesco uses Berenger’s bewilderment to make us shudder at this conformity. A society that rationalizes violence turns senseless and dangerous.
Written in 1959, The Killer exudes mid-century noir as well as contemporary political darkness. In Darko Tresnjak’s production, shadows flicker on windows, doors, and walls, and characters banter with the confident flair of a celluloid detective. Some of the playwright’s 1950s and ’60s Paris contemporaries (Alain Robbe-Grillet, Raymond Queneau) built cool cinematic menace into novels and plays. But for Ionesco, the city is ultimately a place of madness, where violent currents surge underneath everyday behavior.
In this staging at Theatre for a New Audience, that vision comes through most clearly in scenes with a prickly apartment building concierge (played with comic zest by Kristine Nielsen) who berates tenants and kicks dogs. Later, when Nielsen doubles roles as Ma Piper, a crypto-fascist demagogue, we see how each character contains seeds for the other.
Despite honorable ambitions to expand the 20th-century repertory, TFANA’s revival gets bogged down in dramatic problems. Ionesco wrote four works centered on Berenger, and one reason they’re rarely attempted might be that the character talks so much but remains psychologically and morally inscrutable. Shannon plays him broadly and with little inflection, so it’s difficult to accept this unkempt fellow as an everyman when he issues a steady stream of ponderous, circular pronouncements. And when Berenger revolts against his fellow citizens’ indifference, it’s hard to fathom such a naïve soul as a hero (even an alienated modern French one).
Despite a resonant new translation by Village Voice Obie Awards chairman Michael Feingold, Tresnjak’s three-hour production often sinks in the elliptical abstractions of the dialogue. (Serious cutting would have helped.) Only a few scenes hint at the oneiric fluidity required for Ionesco’s metaphysical farces. Most successful is Berenger’s absurd interrogation of his sickly friend Edward (Paul Sparks). Brandishing a briefcase stuffed with clues, Sparks finds the perfect balance of clown and sociopath, a performance that cracks a window onto the ridiculous qualities required to mount Ionesco’s puppet-inspired theater. (Ma Piper’s campaign rally gives another fine picture of sublime senselessness, as the demented politician whips her crowd into a frenzy with promises of new “delusions” under her black insignia, a goose.)
“Why? Just tell me why?” Berenger cries in the final moments, confronting the neighborhood scourge. The murderer meets his plea with a shrug: In Ionesco’s scheme, not even he knows why massacre is here to stay.