Killer Joe, the first play by future Pulitzer-winner Tracy Letts, is a dark comedy. Quite dark.
It begins with a young man named Chris recruiting his father, Ansel, for a scheme to murder his own mother -- Ansel's ex-wife. The titular contract murderer is a crooked cop; the play, set entirely in a Texas doublewide, spirals into punchouts, double-crosses, stabbings, shootings and forced simulated fellatio. Oh, and sex-trafficking: The plot hinges on Joe's demand that Chris provide his teen-age sister, Dotty, as a retainer because Chris can't pay in advance.
Letts' irony is unmistakable. When Ansel balks at Joe's fee, for instance, Chris notes, "This really isn't something we can afford to cut corners on." Still, the play's take on America is decidedly unflattering.
"First time you read it, you feel like you almost want to take a shower," says Joe Grushecky. But Grushecky -- family man, special-ed teacher and local rock legend -- will get dirty for barebones productions. The troupe stages the Pittsburgh premiere of Killer Joe starting Thu., June 24, at the New Hazlett Theater.
Patrick Jordan, barebones' artistic director, plays Joe. The cast also includes John Steffenauer, John Gresh, Hayley Nielsen and Lissa Brennan. Kim Martin directs.
Jordan met Gruschecky, of the iconic Iron City Houserockers, during the 2009 run of Burn This, whose cast included Jordan and TV star David Conrad, a friend of Grushecky's. When Jordan mentioned he was staging Letts' 1993 play, "I was probably the only guy in the house who knew the song 'Killer Joe,' by The Rocky Fellers," says Grushecky. (Hear Grushecky's solo acoustic version of the song by clicking here.)
The 1963 hit doesn't figure in its namesake. But recruited by Jordan to collaborate, Grushecky will flavor the production with another aspect of his musical expertise. Watching the cast do a read-through, Grushecky says, he heard "really dirty blues" -- stuff like Howlin' Wolf's "Evil" and "Backdoor Man."
So between scenes, Grushecky will grab his acoustic guitar and perform those tunes and several others, including "Killer Joe"; "Idiot's Delight" (co-written with his pal Bruce Springsteen); and a tongue-in-bloodied-cheek take on "Save the Last Dance for Me."
Grushecky will play live during most of the show's 12 performances, and cap the closing night with a set backed by his current Houserockers. Other nights, his newly recorded versions of the songs will sub.
Killer Joe is a far cry from Grushecky's last gig with a professional stage performance, playing during intermission at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Springsteen & Seeger show, in 2004. But the play does line up with barebones' penchant for the underbelly: Before shows like last year's Glengarry Glen Ross, for example, Jordan's troupe staged Letts' paranoid motel-room thriller Bug, for which local rockers Midnite Snake recorded clamorous accompaniment.
Letts is best known for 2007's Pulitzer-winner August: Osage County. Killer Joe, meanwhile, has been a critically acclaimed hit in Chicago, New York and London. It's been performed in 15 countries and a dozen languages, though never in Pittsburgh.
Grushecky likes the artistic challenge of helping introduce it to his hometown. "You get to a certain stage, you like to spread out a little bit," he says.
barebones productions presents Killer Joe Thu., June 24-July 10. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square, North Side. $20 ($25 at the door). www.barebonesproductions.com