Review of The Killing Room by Daniel Keene

Darkly comical and creepy, Australian playwright, Daniel Keene pays a visit to the end of the world and finds that the ancient themes of blood feud, brotherly competition, and greed still dominate.

In the opening scene, a scraggly man in a dingy brown nightgown sits up on his hospital gurney and asks, “How can you still be disgusting after a long life filled with disgust?” In Keene’s new play, The Killing Room, the two main characters Ed and Cy, both wretched elderly shells of former kings, wrestle with this question. Keene models these two after the infamous Atreus and Thyestes, warring brothers who stop at nothing to ensure their own absolute power, and seek to eliminate all competition, including one another.

Supposedly thousands of years old, and still hobbling around their chamber seething poison at one another, we wonder why they aren’t dead. The play takes place in a post-apocalyptic nightmare in which these two, plus the medical staff that keeps them alive, and their immediate family are the last remaining souls. Based on what we know of the Greek classic plays, blood feuds never die, and epic tragedy has a scope that reaches far beyond human mortality. These stories have a mythical quality that ensures their survival for generations to come because the very essence of our social psyche is tied to them.

The play feels like a blend of Beckett’s Endgame and Waiting for Godot. The two men of ambiguous age and purpose, lost in an underworld of destruction, and gruesome remnants of the world we once knew. David Deblinger, a co-founder of the renowned LABrynth Theater Company, plays Ed as a deeply disturbed kind of schlemiel. Though both actors play their age, Deblinger’s physical expressions demonstrate a more over the top farcical quality, while Cy, played by Christopher Baker, exhibits physicality like a dinosaur on the brink of extinction.

The performances of these actors give the impression that we are being allowed to watch the intimate lamentable reality of two elderly men. At times, it is hard to imagine that they were ever as vital and ruthless as they tell us. This adds to the dark humor of the play, but this choice also weakens the characters’ connection to their Greek inspirations from the House of Atreus. It feels like the moment you pulled back the curtain and realized the Wizard of Oz was just an eccentric and lonely old man.

In one scene, Cy swoons to an aria on a record player, mouthing the words with the singer as Ed itches to turn it off. Cy defends it telling him, “you have no appreciation of the tragic,” to which Ed retorts, “I practically invented it.” In this world, even the most pure expressions of beauty are better enjoyed as tragedy. As if to confirm this theory, Ed then destroys the record in a fit of rage, proving that even brief moments of joy cannot exist without destruction in their world.

Their nurse is dressed like an English Shepard in khaki pants tucked into matching Wellington boots. He looks like he ought to be tending to animals, so in this case it makes sense that the only livestock remaining are these two. At times, the nurse seems a little too pure for this world. Actor Danny Bernardy is almost chipper in a perfunctory way, and it makes us question how much of the apocalypse he witnessed.

However, for whatever naiveté the nurse may betray, the surgeon has obviously experienced the apocalypse first hand. He is clad in all black, with a long leather coat, and gloves covered in blood. His lilting foreign accent only adds to his brand of dark alley way mystery. We discover that he is the mad scientist that has kept these two alive through organ transplants and blood transfusions, and he has kept the wives, nurse, and himself alive by injecting them with the brain fluid of Cy and Ed, which has inexplicable life extending qualities.

When the two wives Voluma and Somula sashay onstage, they reflect nostalgically on the golden years of their simultaneous rule. Voluma played by Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris remarks “I loved the waste of those days.” If the men are the shriveled up shells of their former powerful selves, their wives are clearly the beneficiaries of their previous power, and current helplessness. Their bloated beauty stems from an over indulgent use of their husband’s magic brain juice.

Two children appear, seemingly straight out of a horror movie, asking for their fathers. We discover that they are both the children of both men, giving them two hearts each, and an excess of blood in their veins, which their fathers literally tapped before discarding them. Richard Saudek and Danielle Heaton play Khov and Vina, overgrown school children with sunken cheeks, muted scout uniforms and protruding jagged elbows and knees. Their second hearts beat their tainted blood that trickles through their eyes sockets down their foreheads, and at the corners of their mouths. Strong choices from these young actors include an intertwined and incestuous physicality. Saudek punctuates his dialogue with vicious nail biting.

Like a bloodstain on a white sheet, the director, Nick Flint effectively creates the impression that this asylum is the last place of activity within the scope of their known universe. The design team constructed a bold and efficient set by draping red plush fabric behind an upstage scrim that resembled arteries, and blood coursing through a knot of veins. The stage juts out and its jagged edge abruptly drops off into a small pool of blood red water surrounded by a gilded ornate frame.

The faint sound of a heartbeat thuds in the background, at times of silence on stage, it creates a strong sensation of anticipation and uneasiness in the audience as if we were inside of an Edgar Allen Poe story. Prolonged blackouts, and sequences of dim greenish lighting in the world outside the hospital room, contrast with the fluorescent bright of the scenes inside of the asylum.

The playwright has a vivid imagination for the gory, and Flint seems to enjoy creating these squeamish moments with strong visual imagery. The men’s food is the ground up flesh of some unknown mammal, but further examination of the pile of mush on a silver hospital tray reveals bits of tooth and fingernail. The nurse and doctor make extractions of the two men’s brain fluid with sharp labs to the skull with long nightmarish syringes.

Keene also asks the audience to use their imagination to envision the end of the world caused by these two. He tells us that the force of their destruction was “like a tidal wave on a pond.” The way these characters reminisce of this time employs strong apocalyptic images, and a Dante’s Inferno-like poeticism. They remember the fall of each major city as it was burned, drowned, or reduced to dust and shadows. They remember when it rained blood and mixed into a river of tears. They recall lines of men, women, and children. Whether they are lining up to wait for something, or lining up to be shipped elsewhere, we are left to come to our own conclusions.

Keene’s strong poetic language serves to embolden a connection to his Greek inspiration. When the children tell Voluma and Somula, “Mothers, we crawled out of you and into our fathers’ mouths,” we can faintly hear the echoes of the infamous moment when Atreus kills and serves Thyestes his own children for dinner. These stories once heard, never leave our memory. The play is an imaginative extension of this ancient duel.

Thursday 10 March – Saturday 2 April 2011
Wednesday–Saturday at 8:00pm, Sundays at 3.00pm
Teatro Circulo
64 East 4th Street, New York
Tickets: $25 | For tickets call 866-811-4111


One thought on “Review of The Killing Room by Daniel Keene

  1. It’s a pleasure to read a thoughtful review of this play. Rather than give it the short shrift that’s become the norm for reviews of off-Broadway productions, the reviewer really grapples with the script and the acting and gives a good sense of it. I agree with the reviewer’s implicit conclusion that the play is well worth seeing, particularly since we’ve just experienced the horror of the earthquake in Japan. As I watched the play unfold, it reminded me of Saramago’s “Blindness,” but with (as the reviewer says of Deblinger) “an over-the-top farcical quality.”

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