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Three angry women in The Smell of the Kill 

When Raid is used as a dessert topping

We never see the guys in Michele Lowe's bloodthirsty comedy, The Smell of the Kill, but we see their balls. Fed up with their wives continuously traipsing across the living room — Nicky and Molly to see after the infant in the bedroom, Debra to hunt down her purse — they contemptuously roll their golf balls into the kitchen to punctuate their demand for dessert. Our devoted hostess, Nicky, gathers those balls into a mixing bowl, tops them with freshly made whipped cream and goes to the pantry, where she finds a can of Raid for extra flavoring.

Apparently, the golf-ball roll is merely the latest in a series of offenses that has turned darling Nicky into a grimly homicidal machine. Her husband Jay has embezzled millions and is facing a ruinous criminal indictment. Molly's problems are more intimate. Her husband Danny showers her constantly with expressions of love but doesn't make love to her. Only Debra seems unaware of her husband Marty's failings. Yet we soon overhear Nicky telling Molly that the real estate salesman grabs for every skirt that comes within his reach — like Nicky's at tonight's dinner.

Not the least of Nicky's grievances is Jay's new preoccupation with blood-sport. As the women sip their wine, they're standing above the massive freezer that Jay has installed downstairs for the storage of various venison and rabbits that the huntsman has shot in the field. Yes, assorted weaponry and ammo are strewn around the house, including the kitchen, where Nicky has affixed a photo of her dear husband to the cabinetry with a butcher knife.

So with weapons to hand and a few glasses of wine down the hatch, what will these women do when Jay and his macho chums are locked in the meat locker? As the pounding continues beneath, the prospect of doing nothing becomes increasingly tempting and wicked.

This co-production by Charlotte's Off-Broadway and The Warehouse Performing Arts Center up in Cornelius shows off the outrageous script to fine advantage. Walking into the storefront theater on Westmoreland Road, don't expect to find the spacious kitchen that would evoke a home that could really sell for $650,000 as Nicky has been told. Ryan Maloney's set, opening toward us, is nonetheless admirably slick and modern, with an upturned lip that prevents those golf balls from commingling with our drinks.

Stranger than the co-production aspect of The Smell of the Kill is the three co-stars co-directing themselves, a process I can only speculate about. Best to blame everybody, I guess, for anything you don't like. Yet somehow I can't envision the casting any other way, with Anne Lambert as our hostess Nicky, Julie Janorschke Gawle as the amorous Molly and Joanna Gerdy as the frosty, judgmental Debra.

Lambert's is a volatile pressure cooker of a performance, for the seething Nicky isn't always exploding but frequently on the verge of it. A mixture of jungle and democracy is involved in the decision about whether to ice the husbands, so there are moments when the three directors must have acted like a fight choreographing collective. There are also moments, pistol in hand, where Lambert rages like a mobster or a dictator. The portrait has already reached that point of evolution where it's only fitfully funny. Nicky is a terror.

Of course, something is gnawing at Molly, too, for her reaction to Danny's perpetual tease — and her intense desire to be a mom — has been a series of clandestine affairs, risky business when your husband is stalking you. Gawle is brilliant as she shuttles between amorous softness, edgy tension and raging sexual frustration, the obvious swing vote as the women deliberate their husbands' fates.

Dramatic tensions in the deliberations come from Debra, who reminds us of Juror #8 in 12 Angry Men. She's the holdout in a decision that must be unanimous if the women are to successfully execute their serial crime. Gerdy hasn't been this physical onstage since her award-winning Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker back in another century, but here the situation is flipped. We view her as the rogue who must be subdued, manipulated and assimilated into the herd.

Or do we? Boorish as the men are — performed live by David Boraks (Marty/Danny) and Philip Robertson (Jay) behind the swinging door — these women cannot be mistaken for Florence Nightingale or Gloria Steinem. Throughout her elegantly compacted script, clocking in at a lean 68 minutes, Lowe strews hints that the hidden men aren't the only barriers to the women's self-actualization. Their sheltered unfamiliarity with poverty winkingly underscores Lowe's discreet distancing from her protagonists.

Sure, this is one neat comedy. But I found myself a little disturbed as I exited, examining my reactions to all this suburban blood lust.

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