Repertory theaters like the Cleveland Play House make their reputations by unearthing important new plays. If the theater gods are smiling, these works ascend to Mount Olympus, which in this country and century means New York, all leading to a regional Tony.
Throwing its hat in the ring, the Play House has chosen from its Next Stage Festival The Smell of the Kill by Michele Lowe. One can understand how this seventy-minute black comedy must have gained attention in its original reading. It has a mouth-watering premise: a female revenge comedy. The story revolves around three upper-class couples at one of their monthly dinner parties. There is lots of hard, bright, brittle chatter going on in the kitchen by the wives. The unseen men in the dining room are all unrelenting chauvinist cretins: respectively, a crook who hunts, an impudent psychopathic stalker, and a philandering real-estate salesman who'll sell anything, including himself or his home, right from under his mate's nose.
The wives are, respectively, frustrated, alienated, and repressed. Before you can hum a few bars of "Me and My Plot Device," the inept husbands accidentally manage to lock themselves in the meat freezer conveniently located in the cellar. As the husbands frantically bang on the freezer ceiling for their lives, the wives have a dialogue on whether it's better to have three breathing schmucks or three silent popsicles.
In its original reading, the play was fascinatingly odd, stylishly mean, and breezily bizarre. The ceaseless banter and one-upmanship became a perverse update of Claire Booth's 1936 play The Women, where a manic female cross-section of 1930s womanhood--the bitch, the socialite, the featherbrain, the husband stealer, the faithful wife, etc.--aired their obsessions over the offstage men who controlled their lives. Back in the '30s, the scheming revolved around how to keep these men; here, in this '90s update, the focus is on how to get rid of them.
The Play House has managed to come up with a porterhouse production. Linda Buchanan's skylight kitchen suggests a Williams-Sonoma catalog come to life. The stage is populated by three top-of-the-line actresses--Henny Russell, Linda Marie Larson, and Babo Harrison--all loaded with whimsy, pep, and impeccable comic timing.
Director Scott Kanoff keeps the verbal darts flying at optimum speed. In spite of all the quality the Play House has brought to Lowe's play, it still must be classified in that nether world of unfortunate transformations, like the snazzy bestseller that becomes a flat pancake on the screen or the poignant play that turns to mush under the camera's relentless eye. As a reading, it fell into the category of an interesting audio experiment, yet on a realistic set, with live protagonists, it's like a creature of the night caught in the sun.
Without the darkness of evocation, this piece fails to live up to the cold light reality demands. It worked as a reading in the same way a well-written radio play like Sorry, Wrong Number used to work--by the power of imagination. What under the shielding cloak of suggestion seemed perverse, witty, and naughty, in the merciless glare of day is merely hollow, contrived, and mean-spirited.
The Smell of the Kill, through Feb. 7, at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000.