Serial killers tend to be loners. Not so John Wayne Gacy, who murdered at least 33 boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. Gacy, who lived and killed in Norwood Park, was known as a sociable neighbor with an interest in politics and community development and a love of appearing in local parades and festivals as a charming character he called Pogo the Clown.
Given that, Gacy — who was executed in 1994, buried 26 of his victims in the crawl space in his house, carrying on above as normal — was a predator of complexity. Frankly, not enough of the complexity of his trajectory is evident in Calamity West's new drama for the Sideshow Theatre Company, "The Gacy Play," which opened at Theater Wit the weekend before last under the direction of Jonathan L. Green and tends to get trapped in circles of its own creation.
The play, which is set in Gacy's house, replete with much attention to that infamous crawl space, in 1975, certainly has a very credible lead actor in the excellent Andy Luther, who not only bares more than a passing resemblance to the man but anchors the show with a rich and well-crafted performance that really nails how some monsters can submerge their acts and function with apparent normalcy. Insofar as this script makes it possible, Luther shows us a wound-tight man who could both charm women and his neighbors — Gacy was something of a swinger in his youth — while also conveying the sense that a demon lurked just beneath the surface.
The most successful aspects of this show are the scenes between Gacy and his second wife, Carole (well played by Elizabeth B. Murphy), a woman cooking dinner in the kitchen while asking increasingly probing questions about the smell beneath, and thus a woman both suspecting and denying.
But although West's 90-minute script and Green's production deftly capture Gacy's twisted 1970s milieu, which is no small achievement, you never get a full sense of what West wants to say about Gacy — and when you're dredging up something like this, even at this chronological remove, it's imperative to make clear what you want to say.
Moreover, the play lacks tension; it feels like not enough is at stake, which is strange given the sensational aspects of the source material. Somehow, West and Green need to push things more into the present tense and sink their teeth more into their man, who, like all of us, comes with a story. Many of their individual pictures are sharp and detailed; the problems emerge, in both script and direction, when it comes to their broader arrangement.
Part of the problem is that West meanders and gets distracted by devices — Gacy has a couple of imagined conversations with John Wayne (Jim Farrell), which don't go anywhere beyond the obvious, and, at one point, the corpses in the crawl space start to come up through the cracks, which also doesn't really serve an enterprise that otherwise is very realistic in tone and trying to stay focused on nuances of character. In other words, it's a grab bag of styles.
Meanwhile, even though the theater is relatively small, Sara Brown's design (although deft in its revelation of the horrors in the basement) seems to push the audience back into the corners of the space while the action floats in the middle. There was a big audience Friday, but few seemed to know what they were supposed to make of the show.
Much the same, I suppose, could be said of Gacy. And Luther's truly fascinating performance sits with me as I write. One hopes West will work on this new play: It's tricky to write dramas about the notorious — one can get to worrying about so many traps that the way through the horrors is hard to find. But Gacy's legacy, like it or not, asks one overwhelming question: How could he kill so many, undetected, for so long? When West keeps her eye on that uncomfortable matter, there's a way through the stench.
When: Through July 29
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $20 at theaterwit.org or 773-975-8150