Marin Ireland delivers a star turn as 'Andy,' a newly released ex-convict. Desperate for a job, she signs on as slaughter-house employee, where she's quickly sent to the kill floor. Every thirteen seconds a bolt gun kills a cow, while another machine lifts the fresh carcass out of the pen and skins it--sometimes while the animal is not quite dead. Accidents are common, sometimes leading to more pain for the cattle, and sometimes injuries for the workers. The kill floor itself is kept just beyond our sight, but its implications bleed out into every aspect of Andy's life.
Rick, Andy's affably manipulative and dangerously amorous boss (played by Danny McCarthy), tells her not to worry: her co-workers are Mexicans ("good workers...reliable") but because his bosses are "racist as hell," she's likely to get promoted above them and sent upstairs to do office work. As the Bard says, "All [wo]men have some hope," and some hopes are higher than others.
Andy's desperation to find a job is rooted in her desire to provide for her biracial teenaged son, B, who is simply embarrassed by Andy's reemergence. B is understandably more interested in surviving high school and first-crushes than he is in bringing his estranged and needy mother back into his life. B remembers too well his mother's arrest, and Marin Ireland provides subtle, nervous gestures that suggest that Andy is still struggling with past addictions, though she insists otherwise to her boss.
Instead of loving his mother, B reaches out to Simon, a white schoolmate and self-fashioned rapper. Simone lays out "sick rhymes" for the benefit of B. B helps Simon score weed. More importantly, the two are caught in an unequal and entirely believable sexual awakening. 'Coming out,' which is getting easier in much of America, seems a nihilistic social choice in their world, and their relationship stands tensely at the edge of discovery. The two young performers, Nicholas L. Ashe and Samuel H. Levine, fully own their characters; under the guidance of director Lila Neugebauer, they create the play's most dynamic, topsy-turvy moments; even if Koogler's insights on race, sexuality, and high school politics are not radically fresh, they are truthfully delivered with wit, grace, and daring.
With B avoiding her, Andy hesitatingly looks for connection elsewhere. She first turns to Sarah (played by Natalie Gold), an outgoing woman from the right-side of the tracks; the relationship allows the play to show that the two women face similar emotional trials, but with such wildly different economic resources as to not be speaking the same language. Sarah thrives (and perhaps even applauds herself) for keeping Andy company, but Andy is unwilling or unable to broach her own past, and so their friendship is stunted. As that relationship stalls, Andy takes a turn into another dead-end by consenting to her married boss' request for a date.
Abe Koogler, showing his chops for modern drama, begins many of his quick, short scenes in media res, with the relationships already established and understood by the characters, and the drama centered on each person's peculiar verbal strategies as they drive after their meager, vulnerable (and often funny) desires. He expertly writes in the staccato semi-fluency that thrives in America's small black box theaters.
(Why, in American dramas about the economically disadvantaged, is there a shortage of eloquent, rhetorically powerful people saying stupid things? It must be a two-hundred year carryover from the imprinting excellence of Charles Dickens. But Mark Twain is our man, and he had plenty of characters who earnestly believed in the tomato paste they were selling.)
At any rate, as with David Mamet and Annie Baker, each broken and partial sentence leaves room for our sympathies. The less the characters say, the more we root for them; the more they open their mouths, the more we know they lack the resources to thrive, and dash the hopes we have invented for them in their quiet moments.
The set by Daniel Zimmerman (wide, shallow, and grey) works with Ben Stanton's lighting and Brandon Wolcott's sound to deliver the audience into an icy world where a slaughterhouse and budget apartment share the same colorless walls. Prison and slaughter are never seen, but always present. The actors dart in and out of the wings like cattle through chutes, and neither they nor we have much idea of what's coming next. The simplicity of the design invited the imagination into the world of the play, and ties together the disparate threads of the story, so that the voices and themes from one scene echo into the next.
It is a play that disposes with an obvious ending, or a well-made play's denouement. Unlike in Annie Baker's THE FLICK (or Oscar Wilde's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST), there are no craftily hidden pieces of paper that cause the play to burst into a climax and a resolution. Most of Koogler's characters could struggle on, nearly unchanging, and constantly caught off-guard, for years and years. Rather than forcing a neat cap on the play's final moments, Koogler brings it to a close at the ninety minute mark, like the closing shift in a warehouse; the lights silently dim on an evening of open, honest, and throat-catching performances. KILL FLOOR depicts characters living in poverty; they prove likable, but they will not win.
This play is a necessary stab in the eye to the Group Theatre's optimism at the end of the Great Depression.
If the playwright senses hope, but sees little way out, then we should take his word for it, and thank him for his honesty: we should not request that playwrights invent neat little plots designed to satisfy our complacency.