By Grayson Barnes
WICHITA - The Smell of the Kill, by Michelle Lowe, was John Dalton-White’s directorial debut at Wichita Community Theatre (WCT).
After originally premiering in Cleveland, Ohio in 1999, in 2002 it showed at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway. It went on for a surprising 40 performances. I say “surprising,” because there isn’t much to work with. Dalton-White and his crew did their best, nonetheless.
The story is about three women, Nicky, Molly, and Debra, who are cleaning up after dinner in the kitchen of Nicky’s 1.2 million-dollar home. They are together ONLY because their husbands are college buddies. Notably absent are the menfolk, whose hyper-masculine bellows occasionally toll from another room.
The boisterousness of the bro-bonding is perfect audible cover for the gals to discuss their marital dissatisfaction. The guys play parlor golf, break things, torture the cat, and toss their (golf) balls into the kitchen at their wives when there is no dessert.
The women are Barbie-types with actual barbs. They variously pair up and claw at the wayward third who wanders off-stage to attend to the husbands’ or an unseen baby’s needs. Collectively the trio swipe at their husbands. Except for Debra.
Nicky’s husband has been accused of embezzling seven million dollars (his “moral limit”) and awaits trial. Molly’s husband hasn’t slept with her in years, yet is pathologically stalker-ish. He shows up unexpectedly at her “ladies who lunch” moments and gave Molly a watch with an alarm set for every two hours so she can call him.
Regardless, she wants a baby, so blushingly innocent Molly managed to have an affair in spite of her helicopter husband.
Dutiful Debra claims to love her man. Will she to stick to that, even when the boys get conveniently trapped in the new meat freezer (for all Nicky’s husband’s deer) in the basement? It just happens to have a persnickety lock. What should the women do?
The action takes place solely in the kitchen/great room. For the story, it had to be upscale enough to give us the sensibility that the existence of these people was at least bordering Original Housewives level. Bob Lancaster, the set designer, did that with his muted gray and white scheme. It gave the area the feel of stateliness, but provided a neutral backdrop for the actors. He also included a pantry clearly visible to the audience for a few moments of “set humor.”
The difficulty at the small WCT is making a space large enough for a script which requires large emotional movement from the actors. They needed enough room to roil about without caroming into pieces or each other. Lancaster’s construction deftly met the variables.
Charlene Grinsell played Nicky. Her physical intensity was understated yet comedic. She constantly threatened to boil over and make a very bad mess on the stove, but cleaned up after a few drips and simmered some more.
Jessica Heidrick was Molly. She remained the adroitly doe-eyed “straight man,” (ala Betty White) even after providing us with her revelation.
While Nicky was ready to roil, Darian Leatherman’s Debra was an expertly gossipy yet stolid “church lady.” Debra was the broadest character in the bunch. Leatherman kept herself just holier-than-thou enough to make us believe she wasn’t going to budge off her bit of moral high ground.
When Debra (Leatherman) confessed her philandering husband had kicked her out of HER house, she decided he should freeze too. It was a startling change-up when Leatherman carried this off without giving this “turn around” moment in the play away too soon – a nicely sweet treat in what was thin fare as far as the play itself.
As to that, The Smell of the Kill is a collection of differences slightly above and below a line of “tepid.” It is measured, yet not terribly deep. It is threatening, but forgettable. Its premise is plausible, although the narrowness of the characters and their reasoning makes the punch-line predictable.
The Smell of the Kill is funny, however only mildly and not genuinely. It is 80 minutes with no intermission, which instead of keeping me captivated, made me feel captive. This is utterly the fault of the writing, not the actors.
A funny, thoughtful, well-articulated play would have surprised, entertained, and amused us right up to the end. In The Smell of the Kill, however, about halfway through, we know exactly what’s going down. I wish Dalton-White had a bit more to work with on his first round at WCT. The actors also deserve some extra applause for seeing it through.
For future shows at WCT, visit www.wichitact.org. l