The Killing Room
nytheatre.com review by Di Jayawickrema
March 16, 2011
In No Exit, Sartre asserts that “Hell is other people.” In One Year Lease Theater Company’s The Killing Room, two brothers at the end of time in a hospital room that also has no exit confront the same problem…with the bonus snag that they have annihilated almost all other people in the world and only have each other left to torment. This is a perfectly gruesome and particularly well-produced Beckett-style tragicomedy-meets-zombie apocalypse. Daniel Keene’s original script, an ambitious entry into the Theater of the Absurd, is only hampered by the danger of being so absurd that it makes no point at all.
In keeping with OYL’s mission of having contemporary dramatists reinterpret classic stories, Keene, one of Australia’s most acclaimed playwrights, finds inspiration in the gory Greek myth of brothers Thyestes and Atreus, rivals for the throne of Olympia who hated each other so much that, on one infamous occasion, Atreus cooked and fed an unwitting Thyestes his own sons. In the post-apocalyptic world of The Killing Room, Ed and Cy are also two such monstrous fraternal kings whose chickens come home to roost when their zombified children, played with ghoulish delight by Danielle Heaton and Richard Saudek, return to confront the fathers who literally drained them dry to slake their insatiable blood-thirst. As the play progresses, we learn the entire hospital, staffed only by a Machiavellian doctor (played by Babis Gousais) and a robotically sunny nurse (Danny Bernardy), was built for Ed and Cy’s immortal “retirement”; a routine boredom of ingesting human blood and habitually trying to kill each other that is only relieved by visits from their hated wives, Voluma and Somula.
The women strut zestfully through their roles, suggesting both 16th century French courtiers and high-end bordello queens, dressed in fur and color that stand in strong contrast to the graying, deadened costuming of the rest of the cast. However, as entertaining as they are to watch, their function, like many of the other plot elements, is obscure. In one vivid, cyclical monologue, Sameerah Laqmaan-Harris, as Voluma, illustrates how their husbands ruled and burned down the beautiful world—“...flowers in Madras; flames in Madrid…”—but not why. Sarah-Jane Casey delivers a very strong performance as Somula, and Christopher Baker as Cy and Dave Deblinger as Ed are truly exceptional. Baker’s tremendous physical acting and Deblinger’s facial mobility, especially, help them deliver performances of equal parts humor and horror. However, not even their abundant talent can find much meaning in all the meaninglessness. Repetitive, nonsensical verbal vomiting is a classic hallmark of absurdist theater but Keene’s predecessors in the genre used the same method to a purpose that, despite a high degree of style, is somewhat missing here.
Also contributing to the play’s polished stylishness are the impeccable production elements. James Hunting’s macabre red and black set with painted human arteries shining from the walls is leveraged wonderfully by Nathan Leigh’s original music, featuring a steady, dull background heartbeat sound that contributes subtly but powerfully to an ambience that is always disturbing (in the best way). Enough can’t be said about Arielle Toelke’s inspired makeup and effects, which are of real assistance to the excellent performers. With so much going for the production, stronger guidance from director Nick Flint could perhaps have been exercised to help curb Keene’s talented but erratic pen. A small measure of editing alone could vault The Killing Room from well-done, intelligent entertainment to the absurdist work of lasting impact that it can and deserves to be.