Throughout Michele Lowe's relatively short "The Smell of the Kill" (which lasts a mere 71 minutes by the calculations of my guest, a railroad man), the only thing that engaged my mind was whether I had ever seen anything stupider. Apart from its brevity, the play's other virtue was that it rarely interfered with my musings. The premise of "Smell" is promising. Three obnoxious men unwittingly lock themselves into a basement meat locker during a dinner party at which they have become more sloshed and abusive than usual. The wives have the choice of simply opening the door and saving their husbands' lives. Or not. In more skillful hands, such a premise might be amusing. If, for example, we sensed some ambivalence on the part of the wives, there might be a little suspense. Only one has some misgivings, but she abandons them without much difficulty. Oh, I've given the ending away! The play also might be more engaging if the women themselves were more sympathetic than their spouses. But they are largely petty and petulant. The three actresses in these unenviable roles are Lisa Emery, Claudia Shear and Jessica Stone, all of whom have done admirable work before but here, under the tutelage of director Christopher Ashley, do little more than project the play's tone of unyielding shrillness. As one of the husbands, Mark Lotito gives a performance of commendable restraint. Part of my 71-minute meditation concerned why this was mounted on Broadway. It's simple: A mainstream production, even if it yields stinko reviews, brings the play to the attention of amateur groups all across the country, always on the lookout for a play with big parts for three women. "Smell" may indeed be more enjoyable when done by the Wilkes-Barre Buskers than it is here because the amateur tone of the writing will be matched in the performances. David Gallo's handsome set, a lavish suburban kitchen, may not be the asset it seems. It raises one's expectations for the evening unduly.
What do you call a situation comedy that has only one situation and very little comedy? Playwright Michele Lowe calls it "The Smell of the Kill," and it opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater.
It involves three excellent actresses as three worms turning - or rather, three wives tempted to wreak their insurance-recoverable vengeance on three unbearable husbands who find themselves locked in a basement meat locker.
Such tension as there is - apart from the tension of wondering not where it will end, but when - must be provided by whether or not these unhappy suburban wives will let their mean husbands out or let them freeze.
The situation leaves no room for development.
We never do meet the husbands - who, before their unscheduled departure to iceland, are content to shout boorish commands from outside a kitchen with a skylight a real-estate agent calls "God's Little Window."
This Home & Garden-like kitchen, provided by designer David Gallo, isn't bad. It's certainly better than the dialogue.
One typically brisk interchange goes like this: "I keep having this horrible dream that I live in Wilmette with a man named Jay."
"But you do live in Wilmette with a man named Jay."
The laughter such interplay provokes isn't so much canned as deep-frozen, despite director Christopher Ashley's best intentions.
The only good news about "The Smell of the Kill" is the purely technical pleasure of watching three actresses trying to whip up an ice-cream sundae out of saccharine, powdered non-fat milk and flat seltzer water.
They fail, of course. A trio of Eleanor Duses coached by Fanny Brice would fail, but you are sort of fascinated by the gallantry and sheer expertise of the attempt.
The dominant one of these Shakespearean-style witches is Lisa Emery as the hostess, Nicky, who flares through the play like a brusque-fire.
Then we have Jessica Stone's tipsy Molly as a good girl gone wrong (though she still acts the ingenue) and a delicious Claudia Shear as a reluctant potential vampire-slayer who's forced to face up to her hubby's awesome co-dependency.
Emery, Stone and Shear: what a great cast for a play. And what a pity they haven't found one.
On a purely visual note, both Stone and Emery at one point strip down to their scanties, then make the mistake of getting dressed again. A pity. I for one would have welcomed the opportunity to look at something more interesting than "God's Little Window."
''Take my husband . . . please!''
The spirit of Mrs. Henny Youngman is alive on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater, where an 80-minute rimshot joke in the guise of a black comedy opened last night. Called ''The Smell of the Kill'' (the title is subtler and more resonant than anything else the script has to offer), the play, by Michele Lowe, is about three suburban women who are handed the opportunity to bump off their crummy spouses and find the idea increasingly irresistible.
O.K., I'm not a woman and I'm not married, so it's possible I'm just not in tune with a members-only message. (I admired ''The Vagina Monologues,'' but I suspect I didn't really get it.) Distaff revenge certainly has a place in the comic tradition, but even with this polished production, ''Smell'' is underweight, especially with tickets going for up to $70. It never rises (or sinks) to the level of satisfying farce; and if it purports (I think it does) to be an acerbic comment on traditional marital roles and the subjugation of a wife to her husband (hey, there's a novel idea), it has no real bite. It's got the texture of a fantasy scenario concocted by ladies who lunch, the sort of collective daydream that seems funnier and more genuine with each vodka stinger.
The set up is this: Settled in the north Chicago suburb of Wilmette, three middle-aged men who were once college roommates have lassoed their wives into monthly reunions at one or another of their houses, where after dinner the men play some sort of golf game in the living room while the women clean up and prepare dessert in the kitchen.
This month the gathering is at the home of Nicky (Lisa Emery), whose disenchantment has been set ablaze by recent events. For one thing, her husband, Jay, has recently been indicted for embezzlement; and though he claims innocence, he has insisted that she quit her job as a book editor so they can use her profit-sharing to pay his lawyers. On top of that, he has squandered $8,000 on a prize possession, a meat locker, where he keeps the carcasses of the animals he hunts.
Nicky is joined by Molly (Jessica Stone), who desperately wants a baby but whose husband, Danny, it turns out, won't have sex with her even though he smothers her with creepy, overzealous attention; and by Debra (Claudia Shear), whose apparent loyalty to her husband, Marty, a real estate agent, turns out to be a facade that covers resentment at the most brutally ordinary of betrayals.
We never see the men, though we hear them; they lob their comments in from offstage. (The voices are provided by Mark Lotito as Jay and Patrick Garner as Danny and Marty, surely the most unrewarding acting jobs on Broadway.) Everything they say proves they are childish, selfish, presumptuous, acquisitive, testosterone-addled and thick. Typical, right?
In any case, as they gossip and putter about the kitchen (a suburban trophy room nicely rendered by David Gallo), the women have the chance for a good long simmer until happenstance brings them to a boil: apparently drunk, the men have gone for a tour of Jay's new toy, and the three of them have sealed themselves in the meat locker.
It's true enough that there is a kind of wicked and delicious possibility in this. But neither the playwright nor the director, Christopher Ashley, is willing -- or able -- to create the kind of deadpan seriousness that would make the play genuinely macabre, and funny in a dangerous way. Instead, the script gives us insistent repartee, occasionally sharp, that illuminates stereotypical kinds of jealousy and spite among the women and eventually unites them in sisterhood. Yes, it's murderous sisterhood, and that's a good gag, but not very far into the play the impulse to stand up and shout ''I get it! I get it already!'' begins its nagging tug.
Mr. Ashley's ordinary deftness with warped social comedy (he is a frequent collaborator of Paul Rudnick), keeps the three women in entertaining motion. There may not be much substance here, but the play nonetheless has pace. Still, he hasn't come up with the stage business that would at least give the comedy a sense of visual invention.
The actresses, professionals all, do their darnedest to make sure that the jokes are at least well timed. And they all have occasion to show off some rather distinctive lingerie. But the characters aren't exactly persuasive even if each has a long list of playable qualities. Nicky is sharp-tongued, articulate, impatient and deeply angry, and Ms. Emery does quite well letting the steam escape from her ears. Molly, spoiled, ditsy and quietly addicted to hedonistic pleasures, is played by Ms. Stone with the squeaky self-involvement reminiscent of Goldie Hawn on ''Laugh-In.''
The brassy Ms. Shear seems for a while to be cast against type as the swallow-your-pride, stand-by-your-man Debra, who needs some rather forceful persuasion to join the revolution. Once she does, however, Ms. Shear's delight becomes apparent. She has the best speech in the play, a recitation of Debra's moral dilemma that she handles exquisitely, as though the answers weren't perfectly evident:
''People make mistakes, but do you murder them? Marty's awful, but should I kill him? I don't know, I don't know. . . . But if Marty freezes to death, will I rot in hell?''
Ms. Shear lets the incomplete thought hang in the air beautifully, and in that moment you can sense that she smells the kill. The lingering silence is funny and grim. But by the bruising convention of this comedy, she has to deliver the laugh-track line: ''Do I care?'' By which point, if you're not in the club, you might be saying the same thing to yourself.
Here's at least one lesson learned from this dreary Broadway season: Avoid shows with the word "smell" in the title. (In retrospect, this seems natural enough, doesn't it?) A week after "Sweet Smell of Success" had critics fleeing the Martin Beck holding their noses, along comes Michele Lowe's "The Smell of the Kill," a coarse, sloppy comedy about three wives who blithely decide to let their husbands turn into Popsicles when they get themselves locked in a meat freezer. No amount of time in the subzero, alas, could keep this one from stinking.
The play is short -- heaven be praised -- but in its 80-minute running time there's scarcely one or two that unfold credibly. The action takes place in the swank kitchen of a manse in suburban Chicago where three wives are washing up after dinner while their husbands practice their golf swings in the next room. The time is apparently today, but the domestic politics seem seriously out-of-date: In how many such upscale homes would a boorish husband screech, "Hey, you left a dish out here!" at wife, then hurl said plate into the kitchen when wifey dares to make a sarcastic retort?
Of course, the brutishness of these men must be exaggerated to supply the heroines with good cause to off the pigs and still keep the audience cheering, "You go, girls!" Later, the boys obnoxiously bombard the kitchen with golf balls when they discover there's no dessert, and even torture the cat (all offstage: The play's gimmick keeps the men firmly out of the picture).
Nicky (Lisa Emery) also has more substantial reasons to hate hubby Jay. He's been brought up on embezzling charges and is pressuring her to quit her job as an editor to save the family fortunes. How's that, exactly? The puzzling logic of this detail is emblematic of the play's carefree lack of credibility. Later, the ditzy Molly (Jessica Stone) will reveal she's having a hot affair, shortly before complaining that her husband stalks her every move and is driving her crazy with his possessiveness. So how's she managing to cheat, and how does she explain the sexy silk camisole the boyfriend gave her, which she wears to dinner with her husband and his friends? (The contrivances by which all three women become semi-undressed are ludicrous, particularly because they serve no discernible dramatic purpose.)
Most incredible of all is the about-face of Claudia Shear's Debra, who at first violently resists the other women's casually hatched plan to let the fellows freeze to death, then suddenly has a change of heart, confessing that, yes, now that you mention it, hubby is an adulterous lech, and evil to their son, to boot. Let him chill!
The three talented performers trapped in this shrill concoction salvage some appealing moments from the wreckage, although Christopher Ashley's direction mostly takes its cue from the coarse textures of the writing. Stone has a daffy Goldie Hawnish quality, and her quirky line readings elicit some of the evening's more gentle laughs. When Molly opens a cupboard and finds a butcher knife used as a push-pin, she blandly observes, "You still use your wedding presents. That's so great." Shear attempts valiantly to bring some human warmth to her character, while Emery tears voraciously into the outraged venom of hers.
Some female members of the audience will get a kick out of the play's increasingly nasty man-bashing (when Debra asks rhetorically if she'll burn in hell for doing in her husband, more than one audible demurral could be heard), but the laughs are mostly cheap and easy -- or tasteless, like the one about the effects of the subzero temperature on the boys' genitalia.
It's easy enough to imagine an appealing revenge fantasy centering on a trio of husband-hating housewives, but "Smell of the Kill" is so slapdash in its construction and lacking in real wit and logic that there's not even much sneaky pleasure to be had in watching the downtrodden triumph over their oppressors. It's really just the audience that is being oppressed here.