It’s a truly common pastime to bemoan the state of modern theater. Whether the moaner is moaning because no one does the classics today, because theater's audiences are aging and shrinking (which together form a polite euphemism for “dying off”), or that someone thinks that there just aren’t all that many good plays being written anymore, I have good news. You’re wrong. Kill Floor, playing now and running through mid-November at Lincoln Center’s LCT3, is proof.
I admit I wasn't initially inclined to go see Kill Floor. Not because of anything to do with the show itself, but because I’ve seen shows at Lincoln Center before. As a relatively new New York resident (I can still use that excuse, right?), I’d never been to an LCT3 production at the Claire Tow, which is Lincoln Center’s newest and most intimate space. Lincoln Center does great work in many ways—they sponsor a lot of wonderful education opportunities, and the Director’s Lab I participated in this past June was an extraordinary opportunity—but their definition of “bold new theater” can be so all-encompassing as to be almost meaningless. I mean, this is the company that decided to do a remount of The King and I, and enthusiastically hoped that with a new eye, modern sensibilities, and an East Asian man playing the King of Siam for once, the play would cease to be racist. (Spoiler alert: it does not.) The reviews for Kill Floor were positive, though, and I’ve had the great pleasure of (briefly) meeting Marin Ireland and watching her work before (and I really wanted to use my LincTix account for something for once), so I decided since I had an evening free I’d just go.
The other reviewers were not wrong.
In Kill Floor (the first professional work from Abe Koogler) Andy (the cracklingly brittle Marin Ireland) has just returned to her small town after a serving a five-year prison sentence (for a drug crime of some kind). She’s trying to get her life back on her feet, get a job and some money, and re-connect with her son B (Nicholas L. Ashe), who’s now 15. The only job she can find is from a fellow alum of her high school (Rick, played by Danny McCarthy) on the kill floor of a slaughterhouse. So that’s what she does. The only way she can get her son to talk to her is by arranging meetings and, at least once, pouncing on him after school when he refuses to return her calls. So that’s what she does. There’s a possibility of her getting a promotion and being taken off the floor to work in the office…but it hinges on (married) Rick’s lingering attraction to her, and will go a lot more smoothly if she plays into that, or at least does him a sexual “favor” or so. So that’s what she does. You may be sensing a theme.
Her son B, meanwhile, is navigating the awkward waters of his cultural identity (as a biracial wannabe rapper) and his sexuality (definitely not straight, given the number of times he’s given his buddy Simon, portrayed by Samuel H. Levine, oral sex). It’s not an easy age for anyone, but having both of those issues—especially in a small town that certainly feels middle American, whether it is or not—is a deeply unfortunate double whammy. And that’s not mentioning his just-out-of-prison mother’s abrupt reentry into his life.
Let me begin this review proper by saying that the acting in this play is superb, and it all revolves around Ms. Ireland. She’s a Tony nominee and, recently, advocate for more stringent and clearly articulated sexual harassment policies in her own union, so there are a lot of reasons to admire Ireland. But her acting talent has to be near the top of any list. In this play, she’s the Energizer Bunny of the production, with multiple streams of nervous chatter, angry rants, and a tense, tight-eyed, and quivering wariness that puts every scene she appears in on edge. It is, of course, Andy’s story—or Andy’s and B’s, rather—but without such a willing and able marathoner in the leading role this play could easily fall apart or drag. Ireland’s energy—which borders on frenzy at times (Andy has confessed “anger issues”)—is under admirable control, too: the script frequently demands jumps from drama to comedy, and Ireland executes these dime-turns with aplomb.
It’s a measure of how talented the entire cast is that they hold their own against the force of nature (and, sometimes, barrage of text) that is this actor in this role. Fortunately, they are uniformly excellent. Nicholas L. Ashe as B and Samuel H. Levine as his friend Simon are particularly worthy of note, as they bring an extraordinarily fraught, tortured, and sometimes perverse relationship to life.
They both have a fidgety, restless, fearful avoidance of language that is at times beautifully moving and at times makes you want to strangle them (which may be the best description I’ve ever come up with of adolescence). Desperate to please Simon, whom he looks up to as the superior rapper, B will do just about anything: give him oral sex, get him weed from his cousin, let (white) Simon use the word “nigga” in casual, hip-hop-style conversation. Simon, meanwhile, is just trying to play it cool, feeding his ego off the attention B gives him and (perhaps) losing himself more than he’d like to in the other boy’s company and adoration. Their being lost together is beautiful in a sad way, but an undercurrent of danger thrums throughout.
Danny McCarthy brings a surprising amount of soul to Rick, Andy’s boss at the slaughterhouse, who could easily become a cartoon. Blunt and often crass (when Andy reminisces on her high school boyfriend who cheated on her with another girl, he responds, “Oh, yeah. She was hot”), Rick is a man who is willing to try to coax Andy into having sex with him, but also reveals a surprising amount of honesty when he talks to her in one lovely car scene about his unhappiness at home. There’s a chance that this is a play to win her sympathy, but it doesn’t seem to be so. Natalie Gold does an excellent job, often hilariously, as Sarah, a much wealthier woman Andy meets at the grocery store and attempts to bond with (poorly).
Lila Neugebauer has directed the show with a sharp eye and an electric sense of pacing, layering the rhythms of scenes and of transitions so well that there’s not a dull moment—it’s easy to see why she’s such a rising star in the directing world. Daniel Zimmerman’s spare set is artfully minimal, which is perfect when combined with Ben Stanton’s simple lighting that traverses settings without fuss. Jessica Pabst’s costumes are also simple and intelligent: a lumpy sweater and coat for Andy, just-too-tight shirts for Rick, just-possibly-queer hoodies for B. The most noticeable design element is Brandon Wolcott’s sound, but this never gets in the way of the acting and does a wonderful job keeping us uncomfortable and reminding us that there’s a lot of unpleasantness just out of sight (we never see the eponymous kill floor, but we do frequently hear it in the transitions and we see Andy in her bloody work clothes).
As Mr. Koogler’s first work, this is a fine showing already well regarded (it’s won two awards, one from the Kennedy Center and one from Williamstown Theatre Festival). The most remarkable technique is Koogler’s careful crafting of the play’s theme. “You can’t get distracted,” Rick tells Andy at one point, when they’re discussing their work. And, of course, that’s what Kill Floor is really about: the distractions we provide ourselves with, the manufactured blind spots we create to help us avoid fully engaging with our existence. Every character in this play has at least one: Andy’s past, Rick’s marriage, B’s abusive relationship. Even Simon has one (his sexuality) and Sarah’s is, well, perhaps simply her inability to recognize how different her life is from Andy’s. The most wonderful thing about this theme is that it’s never beaten into our heads—it just exists, and yet is perfectly clear. At one point, Andy tells B about the kill floor and describes the tunnel that the cows go through. They just see one turn and the next, she says, and they focus on each turn ahead of them, never scared or worried, and then bam! they’re dead. It’s no secret that a lot of these characters are desperately trying to live like those cows—and the consequences of such living can be high indeed.