Murder, She Wrote

There's not much depth to The Smell of the Kill, but it's wonderfully malicious and a lot funnier than any of the sketch comedy I've seen lately.

Nicky, Molly and Debra are thrown together once a month by their husbands' friendship; on this particular occasion, they cluster in the shining and luxurious kitchen of Nicky's million-dollar home while the men practice their golf putts in the living room. The women don't particularly like each other at the beginning of the play and they're the closest friends imaginable by the end, so you could call this a female bonding drama. Except that there's no hugging and nary a tear in sight -- although there is a little gunplay. And the bonding experience arises from a prolonged and far-from-theoretical debate about whether their husbands should be allowed to stay alive.

The men are all louts, of course. Nicky's husband is a swindler who's about to go to prison and wants her to quit her job, cash in her pension and buy him out of trouble. Do it, urges loyal, stay-at-home Debra, who gave up her career and sent her son off to military school to make her own spouse happy -- so happy that he fondles every other woman he encounters. Molly's husband adores her. No matter where she is, he phones her dozens of times a day to tell her this. Too bad he can't bring himself to sleep with her.

The script, by Michele Lowe, is bright and clever, and there are some wonderful moments, as when the men, displeased by Nicky's announcement that she hasn't planned any dessert for them, send a flurry of golf balls into the kitchen. Some of the action is odd, though. For example, I couldn't see much reason for each of the women in turn to shed her blouse, though the baby vomit on Molly's front is pretty convincing; perhaps this display of cleavage represents Lowe's attempt to pacify any males in the audience who might object to the play's basic premise. (The men were sputtering with laughter on the night I attended, however.) A few exchanges sound tired or sitcom-y or a bit too slick -- but others are full of verve and surprise.

Director Terry Dodd has assembled a first-rate cast for the Avenue Theater's production. Megan Van De Hey is a smoothly, vivaciously vicious Nicky, and Emily Paton Davies, playing Debra, provides loads of fun as the character arrives at a full realization of her husband's hypocrisy. But it's Laura Norman's performance that astonishes. She's a master of wonderfully off-kilter line readings, and her Molly combines dopey bewilderment with moments of wry wit. She's a woman who can melt at the thought of bearing a child, fling herself cheerfully into a succession of adulterous affairs and contemplate murdering her husband with bright-eyed enthusiasm. I don't know how Norman does it, but she manages to add nuance, even mystery, to every role she undertakes, no matter how light -- and without making things ponderous.

Perhaps it should bother me that by the play's end I was rooting for a triple homicide. But how could it when the evening was so much fun?

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman