Where has "The Killer" been all our -- or at least my -- life? Eugène Ionesco's gripping 1957 tragicomic thriller/philosophical horror show has not had a major New York production since its Off-Broadway premiere in 1960.
Thanks to the audacious people of Theatre for a New Audience, we have one now. And it's a stunner. In fact, it is hard to imagine that anything less could do justice to the French absurdist's sprawling yet intimate, scary yet hilarious treasure from the futurist past.
If that sounds contradictory, welcome to the dark and strange delights of director Darko Tresnjak's intricately layered three-hour production about an Everyman trying to recapture hope and justice in a nightmare society. And welcome, especially, to the mastery of Michael Shannon, a protean giant of an actor best known beyond fortunate theatergoers as the febrile ex-FBI agent in "Boardwalk Empire" and the unstable son in "Revolutionary Road."
Here he is Berenger, a depressed regular guy in a depressing authoritarian city, where, as he says, it always feels like "twilight in November." But we first meet him as he discovers a utopia, a "radiant" city of perfect skies and flowers, technologically enclosed within the hopeless squalor. Shannon, a big, rugged guy with a gift for the peculiar, recaptures Berenger's lost joy by dancing around and flubbing a few beautifully awkward cartwheels.
Alas, there also is a serial murderer loose in paradise, and nobody seems to care enough to stop him. Meanwhile, on a plain black stage, Berenger lusciously describes the splendor while on a first-act tour with the municipal architect, played with delicious ominous distraction by Robert Stanton. (Ionesco even predicted the cellphone, here a bulky landline in the man's pocket.)
Tresnjak (who directed the multiple-Tony-nominated "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder") and designer Suttirat Larlarb then transport us to the grim city, where traffic noise overwhelms conversation and vaudevillian pratfalls look dangerously real. In Berenger's squalid apartment, we meet his cadaverous friend -- embodied by Paul Sparks with a ghoulish mystery and hacking cough. Kristine Nielsen plays the building "concierge," who entertains with wild mood swings, then plays a politician promising to replace "deluders" with "new delusions" and free soup.
Ionesco, translated by Michael Feingold with rare humor and naturalness, suggests Brecht's ironic political outrage and Beckett's profound lack of sentiment about existence. But there is also humanity and romanticism in Berenger's final monologue, a virtuosic philosophical argument with himself about murder, responsibility and reason. Shannon, full of power and grief, dazzles.
WHAT "The Killer"
WHERE Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
INFO $60-$100; 866-811-4111; tfana.org
BOTTOM LINE Shannon dazzles in rediscovered treasure.