Berenger (Michael Shannon), the everyman who stars in Eugène Ionesco’s later plays Rhinoceros, Exit the King, and A Stroll in the Air, made his first and perhaps most devastating appearance in The Killer, one of the purest expressions of the Theatre of the Absurd. In the first act (during which the set is almost always bare, the white scratches on the black stage burning our eyes), he accidentally finds himself in the Radiant City, a miracle of modern technology: the sky is always blue and the grass always green; it never rains, though “all the roofs are waterproofed automatically … out of respect for an old tradition.” The Architect (Robert Stanton) responsible gives him a tour and Berenger basks in euphoria of a kind he hasn’t felt in centuries—or maybe only in years—a youthful, glowing euphoria that was crushed by cities that exist in “a climate unkind to living things.” Berenger, however, is quickly deflated when he hears that a Killer has been stalking the streets of the Radiant City, while all its inhabitants have either fled or locked themselves up indoors. Miserable, he returns home to his friend Edward (Paul Sparks), who is mysteriously in possession of all the Killer’s belongings. The ingenuous Berenger insists they must report this to the police, but after a series of holdups, including a traffic jam and a fascist political speech, he is alone, without the evidence, on a nightmarish walk that leads him not to the authorities but to the Killer, who only laughs repeatedly during his exhaustive (and tour-de-force) monologue covering every possible philosophical, social, and ethical reason not to murder.
In 1955 the Nouvelle Revue Française published a short story that would later become The Killer, in which Ionesco writes of his title character, “No words, friendly or authoritative, could have convinced him; all the promise of happiness, all the love in the world, could not have reached him; beauty would not have made him relent, nor irony have shamed him, nor all the wise men in the world make him comprehend the vanity of crime as well as charity.” Thus, the world of The Killer is one in which all potential happiness and all wonder evoked by the world exists in the shadow of inevitable death. Importantly, before the final confrontation, the script offers two possibilities. In the first, the Killer approaches Berenger. In the second, the stage directions read, “No KILLER. We might only hear him snickering.” The man may not even exist, and indeed his identity is of no importance. He is a stand-in for an absurd life that is haunted by its transience.
Mr. Shannon, unsurprisingly, is a perfect articulator of this angst, and his politeness gradually breaks down as he mounts the impossible task of arguing with the universe. Though known mostly for the kind of dark and malicious roles where evil lurks beneath the banal, he is able to capture Berenger’s betrayed innocence, his rage and then his panic at the fact that the promise of life is ultimately unfulfilled. Mr. Stanton, too, is brilliant, his Architect cool and indifferent to death but enraged when the corporate machine is slowed by the kinks of human emotion. And Mr. Sparks, who co-stars with Mr. Shannon in Boardwalk Empire, drags his fevered, drained, nearly vampiric body across the stage, embodying a man who has allowed himself to waste away in response to this unkind climate.
The Killer is rarely produced, but director Darko Tresnjak and his cast have offered a terrific argument for its durability. It is haunting and hilarious, it is meditative, powerful theater, a true masterwork written at a time when masterworks were being produced more often and by more playwrights than at any other time since Elizabethan England.
The Killer runs through June 29th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. 262 Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY. 3 hours 5 minutes. Two intermissions.