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at the Garage Theatre

Steppenwolf-bred playwright Tracy Letts (Bug) first gained prominence in 1993 with this harrowing exercise in pulp fiction adorned with a Grand Guignol flair. He has a knack for creating darkly funny trailer-trash characters—think Del Shores meets Jerry Springer. Joe's guilty-pleasure spectacle gives us a fly-on-the-wall glimpse at lowlife slum denizens who pick one another apart like vultures. There are excellent elements in director Eric Hamme's staging of this gripping potboiler, though the overall effort proves less than first-rate.

The performances range from spot-on to inadequate. As the smarmy Chris, who plots to have his despised mother bumped off so he can collect the insurance money and pay off predatory drug dealers, Jeff Pearce gives a mesmerizing portrayal. When a shred of human decency emerges from this scoundrel, it's too little, too late. Matching Pearce's expertly honed characterization is Kim Bush's nuanced work as Chris' stepmother, a tough-talking broad whose role in the unfolding tragedy of errors gradually becomes more important. Playing the titular assassin, the hulking Frank Stasio correctly projects a cool-as-a-cucumber façade, but we need a clearer foreshadowing of the menace churning inside this loose-cannon sociopath. Rory Cowan only hints at the smarmy essence of Chris' sniveling-coward father, failing to burrow deeply enough under the character's slimy skin. The production's biggest liability is Juliana McBride's bland performance in the difficult role of the slow-witted waif; Chris' younger sister, offered to Joe as human collateral, should be the closest to an empathetic character in the play. McBride's interpretation is low-key to the point of vapidity.

A strong asset is the delectably creepy production design. The Garage, a funky black-box facility with guerrilla theatre written all over it, is the perfect venue for this gleefully vile, in-your-face melodrama. This is the sort of kitchen-sink drama in which the sink is coated with scum, the furniture is ragged, junk is piled along the walls, and one can almost smell rotting garbage. Maureen Weiss' inspired set, Aja Bell's costumes, and Yammy Swoot's murky lighting conjure the sleazy milieu that's so crucial to this piece, though Swoot's noirish effects are almost too effective at times, obscuring facial expressions at key moments.

Presented by and at the Garage Theatre, 251 E. Seventh St., Long Beach. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m. Aug. 10-Sep. 8. (866) 811-4111.

Reviewed by Les Spindle

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