Kill Floor, now at the Claire Tow theatre, is a dour bit of business. Abe Koogler has written a mythic story of a woman seeking redemption that hits just about every note on the story element scale. The kill floor is not only the place where cows are separated from their lives, it is a place where most of the characters in this play set down their weary load. There are a lot of ways to feel like you are dying while you are still alive.
Andy (Marin Ireland) is fresh out of prison for dealing drugs and has returned to the town where her son B (Nicholas L. Ashe) has been living with the couple who took him in 5 years ago. No one wants to hire an ex-con, especially one with a fuse as short as Andy’s. Her old high school chum Rick, however, will throw her a bone if she is willing to work on the Kill Floor. Actually he doesn’t call it that – he refers to it as “down there.” No benefits and lots of Mexicans who are hard working. Andy snatches the job.
The kill floor is tough. Animals are still alive when the skinning process begins. Nothing to be done about that says Rick. But if it were slower you could make sure they were dead says Annie. Can’t be slower, Rick tells her. Get back to work.
Because Andy is a person in need of a change of spark plugs she jerks her way around her new life. She is much like the animals she skins every day: raw and kicking. Her relationship with her son is tenuous at best. Gifts are met with shrugs. She shows him her new apartment and they have to stand because she has no furniture. Or they sit on the floor. Another floor. She creates arguments out of thin air, and when she can’t find anyone she knows to confront, she takes it out on total strangers.
B is in the middle of the hormone download of a 15 year old boy. His mother’s return has turned everything upside down. Just when he has gotten used to living without her she shows up. Not good. He is being pulled in too many directions. He has a crush on Simone (Samuel H. Levine) who has taken on the persona of a black gangsta rapper because the world is to frightening without a way to hide. Their encounters in B’s bedroom are without furniture as well, They stand, or are on the floor. Simone treats B with the same amount of interest that B treats Andy. Circles and circles and circles.
Inevitably Rick takes an interest in Andy that is more than just casual. He can offer her an office job in a couple of months. He is unhappy. He likes her. Rick is not mean, or a moron, just trapped like everyone else in this play.
Close to the end of the production I was feeling a little claustrophobic. Koogler is so intent on his characters’ pain that he has nearly painted them into a corner. There is no let up from the sadness, frustration and bitterness. Because of this the plot often becomes predictable, despite these fine performances. In addition Lila Neugebauer’s direction confines the actors and thus the characters a few notches too tightly. I am reminded of advice that Alan Ayckbourn gave in The Crafty Art of Playmaking: “The best comedy springs from the utterly serious…the darker the drama the more you need to search for the comedy.” I’m not talking about slapstick. I ‘m talking a little light that will give some form to the dark. Some air that will let us breath. If we feel trapped by a play as an audience, the exercise can be self defeating. We are all ready to descend into the basement of any character and see where the wild things are. The only caveat is that we have to be certain that the door at the top of the stairs is left open.
Here the door was closed. It isn’t until the final scene that we get a hint that it might not be locked. By then I had run out of steam.
KILL FLOOR Written by Abe Koogler; Directed by Lila Neugebauer