In the 55 years since Eugène Ionesco’s landmark theater-of-the-absurd classic The Killer debuted, a funny thing has happened. The political satire elements of the script (like a goose-stepping Goose Party) seem quaint, while some other elements of the production that must have seemed truly outlandish at the time (a bureaucrat pulling a phone from his suit jacket) emerge as prescient. In director Darko Tresnjak’s solid new revival, playing through June 29 at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center for Theatre for a New Audience, even the sound design suggests a familiar modern world where the human voice must compete with all sorts of ambient distractions.
Boardwalk Empire star Michael Shannon plays Berenger, a happy-go-lucky everyman who stumbles upon a ”radiant city,” a pristine enclave within his otherwise dismal urban hometown where the weather is always perfect and the sights and sounds magnificent — including the sight of a young blonde (Stephanie Bunch) whom Berenger is convinced is destined to be his fiancee. The trouble is that there’s a serial killer on the loose, and Berenger’s insta-fiancee is the next victim.
By the second act, Berenger has returned to his crowded, dreary boarding house, where a broom-pushing landlady presides. She’s played with scene-stealing hilarity by Kristine Nielsen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), who returns in the third act as the rabble-rousing Goose Party leader Ma Piper. Indeed, all of the ensemble scenes burst with life and energy, and Tresnjak stages them cleverly to exploit the multi-tier space in the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
But the production spins its wheels a bit in some of the longer two-handed scenes, particularly a second act exchange between Berenger and his friend Edward (Paul Sparks), who totes a briefcase stuffed with incriminating evidence belonging to the killer. (Berenger is easily one of the most credulous characters in 20th-century drama.) And Shannon’s final speech, a long, frustrated monologue addressed to an enshadowed villain (silent but for the occasional cackle), proves to be more challenging than compelling.
Shannon is a seasoned stage performer, and he effectively suppresses the hints of menace that he so often brings to projects like Man of Steel and Boardwalk Empire. But unlike Geoffrey Rush, who played another version of Berenger in the Ionesco revival Exit the King a few years ago on Broadway, he can seem a little too recessive an everyman — not to mention rather dim. It’s not that he lacks charisma, but more that the part calls for a greater variety and range, a bigger bag of theatrical tricks, than he’s able to summon here. B