Mat Smart’s Kill Local opens way up in a high-rise either under construction or in development-limbo. Yellow “Caution” tape demarcates where windows will be, or should have been. Same with a ladder and orange wheelbarrow full, we learn, of concrete. Instead of construction workers, a stage-wide plastic curtain pulls back and reveals a woman seated in a chair and a man dangling from a rope and pleading for mercy. But she’s not having it. Nor is she prepared to act just yet. Both of them, it turns out, are at a crossroads in their lives. They want to change for the better. But can they and — the world premiere play at the La Jolla Playhouse asks — can anyone?
The dangling man is Todd McIntyre. If he lives, he’ll have to go some to turn his life around. He’s a real-estate fraud who recently bilked over 100 people and wanted the building to fail. As he swings from the rope, Todd slowly develops a conscience. Hey! He’ll gladly tread the narrow path of righteousness, even multi-tithe at the church of her choice — anything, so long as she doesn’t Jackson Pollock his brains on plastic sheets set to catch the splatter. An attendant question: was Todd born to connive? Is this who he is deep down?
Sheila, wearing holster-like suspenders and staring beyond infinity, is convinced murder has been her calling. She’s a third-generation assassin: her mother runs a local termination business. But now she finds “no joy anymore in what I was born to do.” Not because female assassins make less than males, though inequality may be in the mix. No, she’s lost an innate spark. She no longer loves the gore or amputating corpses limb by limb. She’d much rather play Bejeweled, the online puzzle game, and try to align bright-colored gems. At least they can still connect.
Like Todd, Sheila is “stuck.” She can iPhone Chipotle to change her take-out order. But can she reinvent her inner nature? Even if she could, what then? She has no other aptitude. At its best, and much like The Sopranos, Kill Local pits the absolutely mundane against Grand Guignol horrifics. The result is chilled laughter. As when Sheila’s younger sister, Abi, enters the construction area. Abi has no call to kill — she “doesn’t do concrete,” she says with pride. Instead, she does the company’s books and hacks the computers of corporate assassins. Abi’s had a rough time of late. We learn this when she says, “I didn’t think my day could be any worse, but now I gotta hear you [Sheila] saw through a guy’s arms!”
Their stone-hearted mother, Gloria, only kills for business, up to now. She will not let Sheila quit. Even considers the prospect of becoming so angry she could easily snuff a daughter: “You know how hard it is for normal people not to kill their children!” Kill Local is less effective, almost sermon-like, when it does philosophical overkill about changing lives and forgiveness (referring to the 23rd Psalm several times). Call it Theme Time. The play practically steps out of itself: the pace slows, the tone shifts, and one hears the playwright setting out the oppositions and doing our thinking for us. Is the Code of Hammurabi (“eye for an eye”) ever justified? How about lethal force? Can people get unstuck? The logic’s tricky here; depends on what “stuck” means (people have gone on lifelong diets, no?).
This thematic steering also types the characters. They stand for positions in a debate and lose likeability along the way (not that they’d win a popularity contest or have myriad followers on Facebook). The show has other lulls. Act One, scene three, which begins the philosophizing, needs tightening. Brief scenes at the top of Act Two also lag the pace. They’re supposed to show the passage of time, but pulling back the curtain takes almost as long.
La Jolla Playhouse’s opening night had a rarity. Prior to Act One, scene two, the curtain wouldn’t open. A voice announced that there’d be a delay. One of the special effects — all of them savage enough for a Quentin Tarrantino bloodbath — wasn’t working. Was it a reluctant pistol? Or the concrete slab/crypt, from which shocks will emerge? Can’t say. The pause, and maybe they should keep it in the show, called attention to the difficulty and precision of these live, rapid-fire effects on Wilson Chin’s micro-realistic set.
Director Jackson Gay has encouraged an appropriate acting style. Her cast performs with a titch of exaggeration, sometimes more, which helps highlight the contrasts between daily life and stone-cold brutality. Candy Buckley’s Gloria has enough swagger for a Wild West shoot-’em-up. Matthew Amendt’s Todd is appropriately freaked out. Xochitl Romero’s Abi provides comic relief and some of the play’s best, most bizarre lines. Carolyn Braver does what she can with the underwritten Ami. It’s almost as if Amanda Quaid’s Sheila is in two plays simultaneously: Kill Bill 3 and an intermittent meditation on human nature. Quaid gives a strong performance throughout. That she almost links both plays together is no mean feat.
2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD
Directed by Jackson Gay; cast: Matthew Amendt, Carolyn Braver, Candy Buckley, Amanda Quaid, Xochtl Romero; scenic design, Wilson Chin; costumes, Jessica Ford; lighting, Paul Whitaker; sound, Broken Chord; fight director, Steve Rankin
Playing through August 27: Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. lajollaplayhouse.org