The Smell of the Kill is an awful name for a play, especially one as smartly written as Michele Lowe's tart black comedy, now on display at Algonquin Theater in Peoria. The story concerns three 21st-century wives stuck in pre-feminist marriages; each has a husband who's lacking in some real way and who's keeping his wife down with his rotten behavior.
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Nicky is a successful books editor and vegetarian whose horrible husband hunts and kills deer and stores them in a just-purchased meat locker in their basement. He's recently been indicted for embezzlement and will likely go to prison; he wants Nicky to quit her job so that they can use her 401(k) to pay their legal fees. The other two have it comparatively easy: Debra's husband is a philanderer who's just asked her to move out of their house so that he can move his mistress in; Molly's husband refuses to have sex with her, making her dream of a houseful of children somewhat more daunting.
Fortunately, this is a three-character play, and we never have to actually meet these awful men (although we do hear them, early on, as shouted voice-overs from offstage). On the night that we join the trio, it's Nicky's turn to host the group's monthly dinner, and the women have convened in Nicky's kitchen to say nasty things about whichever of the women happens not to be in the room. Eventually, the talk turns to murder and, because I don't want to give away too much of what makes this one-act tick, I'll mention that in the meantime, we hear enough genuinely amusing chatter to remain engaged, despite a pair of disappointing performances.
On opening night, neither Christi Sweeney as Debra nor Heather Cambanes as Molly made me believe that they were, in fact, these women. Every moment of their self-conscious performances conveyed that they were actors up on a stage, pretending to be upper-middle-class housewives married to oafs. Only Robyn Allen delivered the necessary blend of sarcasm and ennui to pull off comedy this dark; her sharp line readings made Nicky's matter-of-fact attitude about murder seem plausible and that much more amusing.
Director Ron Hunting's set design is also inadequate, if only because this is supposed to be a million-dollar tract home, and this cheaply constructed, Formica and fiberboard pile is a kitchen straight out of a Maryvale suburb. Hunting keeps the pace chugging along, but has made a fatal flaw: he's shoved his ugly set so far upstage, it's practically in the theater lobby. Lowe's is an intimate story of three women hanging out in a kitchen, chatting. But rather than feel part of their killer coffee klatch, the audience is so far away, out in the darkness, we might as well be watching a sitcom rerun. Which this dark, funny comedy is — at least on the page — rather more than.