Local A-listers bring redneck dark humor to the city

What do you get when you cross “Roseanne” with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”?

According to producer Jonathan Mares, the answer is the darkly comic thriller “Killer Joe,” making its New Orleans debut Thursday at the AllWays Lounge.

Written in the early 1990s by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Tracy Letts, the play is described thusly on its Chicago playbill: “ ‘Killer Joe’ focuses on the Smith family, a greedy, vindictive clan of Texans who hatch a plan to murder their estranged matriarch to cash in on her insurance policy. Unable to bring themselves to do the deed, they hire ‘Killer Joe’ Cooper, a full-time cop and part-time contract killer. Once he steps into their trailer, their simple plan quickly spirals out of control.”

The “spiraling” will just have to be seen in person.

“Killer Joe” runs over three weekends, Thursday-Saturday, through July 27.

The stage play was transformed into a feature film of the same name in 2011 starring Matthew McConaughey as Joe.

The New Orleans production stars Jim Wright in the title role. Backing him is an “A-List” of local stalwarts of the stage: Dane Rhodes (Ansel), Lucy Faust (Dottie) and Andrea Watson (Sharla), plus newcomer Max Thornton, a recent LSU graduate, as Chris.

“All the actors are wonderful and play their roles convincingly,” Mares said. “There really is no lead, per se, and each character has a lot to do. It’s a true ensemble piece because they’re all on stage pretty much throughout the show.”

Mares described the set as “the sixth character, because it’s so important to understanding the other five characters.” It looks like the inside of a stereotypical, poor-man’s trailer home, he said.

“We’re going to have cheap wood paneling on the walls. An old TV set with aluminum foil around the antenna. Taco Bell cups, empty McDonald’s bags and other discarded fast food items all over the floor.”

Burned-out cigarette butts fill the ashtrays, and empty beer cans are omnipresent.

So bottom line: Is it “redneck humor”?

According to Mares, “Yes, you can safely call it that. It has a lot of great humor in it. But it has some really shocking moments as well and some really intense actions that happen toward the end. The cool thing about it is that it’s a slow burn show. It builds and builds and builds until, in the second act, one thing happens after another.”

The producer added: “Like any good thriller, it’s supposed to be a roller-coaster ride of emotions. We want the audience to go through a one-week span with these people. And by the end of the play we want them to be spent and to have really had a good time. As shocking and as thrilling as it is, it really is a good time as well. These characters are a hoot. A lot of humor but with some really intense situations.”

A Jesuit High School and UNO graduate raised in Metairie, Mares, 27, began acting at 7 and estimates he’s been a part of 70 shows. He launched Jonathan Mares Productions in 2010, bringing five local premieres to his hometown.

“I wanted to see some shows that weren’t being done in New Orleans, and I thought I could be the person who brought them to the city,” he said. “And I have.”