Just in time for the holidays comes the new Off Broadway hit Killer Joe, a production definitely not meant to compete with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Tracy Lett's ultra-black comedy focuses on the Smith family, trailer dwellers on the outskirts of Dallas. Chris owes money to a drug dealer, so he enlists his father, Ansel, and stepmother, Sharla, in a plot to murder Adele, his mother, for the insurance money. They hire Killer Joe Cooper, a local cop who has a nice sideline in contract murders. Since the Smiths are a little short of cash, Joe takes as his down payment Dottie, Ansel's strange, reclusive daughter. Unfortunately, the family that slays together doesn't necessarily stay together, as the plan unravels, culminating in a brutal fight and a surprise finale.

This sordid plot unfolds on the stunningly real trailer setting--featuring a living room, kitchen, and dining area, designed by George Xenos, who notes that his design "all started backwards. We started with the fight at the end of the play, because everything builds to that moment. For that reason, we built as much of the set as we could as early as we could, so they could rehearse on it. We got the refrigerator and the stove relatively quickly, so we put those in place. We mocked up a fake counter, and put in all the walls and doors. As we got the correct furniture, it came into the process. It was a month-long load-in." It was also a work in progress, as the direction of the play developed. "As we were out shopping for furniture, they were changing the blocking," says Xenos. "As soon as they changed the blocking, whatever couch we had found would be no good. This is the fourth couch."

Xenos says he researched the exteriors of trailers to determine the correct shape and placement of the windows. Interestingly, he didn't use the full stage space at the Off Broadway Soho Playhouse, because, he says, a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere is essential to the play. "When you have five people onstage," he says, "you want to scream, you just want to lift up the ceiling. We certainly had enough room to make it bigger, but we made it as small as it could possibly be to accommodate the play." A low ceiling adds to the boxed-in feeling.

The set's depressing wood paneling came from Home Depot, Xenos says; other furnishings came from hardware stores. "We shopped the whole thing in the area. We found a peach tile for the kitchen, then painted it a canary yellow. It was the only thing with that pattern we could find on short notice. We ordered the cheesiest kitchen cabinets we could find. It was a line that they don't have in the store anymore. We bought white window blinds and painted them a dirty brown." There are also doubles of the furniture pieces, because of the extreme abuse they take during the final fight scene.

Xenos, laughing, describes the project as a never-ending search for the tacky, the depressing, the downmarket. "An assistant would call, saying, 'I've just found this item, what do you think?' So I'd say, 'How awful is it?' He'd say, 'Pretty awful.' I'd say, 'Take a picture.'" The result is a setting that one critic called "a masterpiece of trailer-trash horror."

Xenos opened another play the same week, a project that presented dramatically different challenges. Caryl Churchill's The After-Dinner Joke, presented by the Monster(less) Actors at Off Off Broadway's Currican Theatre, is a scathing satire about Selby, an idealistic young woman who forsakes a business career to work for an institutional charity, only to discover that the business of giving away money is hopelessly tied with politics and capitalism. Killer Joe was a one-set play, with a specific ground plan dictated by the script, which had been done several times before by its director, Wilson Milam, and several cast members. The After-Dinner Joke is a radio play which has never been staged before, a freeform fantasy that features dozens of characters and dozens of locations.

Reflecting Churchill's ideas about the intersection of business and charity, and the bureaucratic nature of most institutions, Xenos created another nightmarishly claustrophobic setting. This time it was an office jammed to the rafters with paperwork, boxes, file cabinets, etc. It looked like the back office of some forgotten Beckett character, a hellish Dickensian view of society strangling on its own red tape. To keep the action moving at a rapid pace, file cabinets swung wide open to disgorge a parade of supporting characters.

Again, the design came out of an unusual process. "I came up with a concept, which was the idea of never-ending paperwork," says Xenos. "An initial idea was that the entire play possibly all happens in Selby's head. When you think of all the information you have stored in your head...I wanted to conceive of the space as cluttered with information, allowing a lot of flexibility about where somebody could pop out. But the actual ground plan, where the doors were, didn't come out until halfway through rehearsal."

This, of course, resulted in a tricky build process. "The hero of this production is Roy Ballard," says Xenos. "He's the technical director at New York Theatre Workshop, where I used to be production manager. He did all the construction and it's an amazing job." In fact, set construction was something of a group effort. "All the boxes look like they're stacked irregularly," says the designer.

Much of the office furniture came from Materials for the Arts, which supplies not-for-profit theatre companies. "A lot of the file storage boxes were purchased--they've all been washed down with buckets of tinted latex, to distress them."

Xenos adds that this happened during a busy time, as he was also working as costume designer for Madison Scare Garden, the annual midtown Halloween horrorfest. A trio of unsavory projects, to be sure, but there was some sweetness and light in his future. His next project was Christmas from the Heart, a musical entertainment starring Kenny Rogers at the Upper West Side's Beacon Theatre--a production which really will, perhaps, compete with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

Additional personnel on Killer Joe included lighting designer Greg MacPherson, costume designer Jana Stauffer, sound designer Hired Gun/One Dream, and production propertyperson Maura Jasper. Having received sensational reviews, it continues at the Soho Playhouse. Personnel on The After-Dinner Joke included lighting designer Chris Dallos, costume designer Chris Field, and sound designer Antonio Garfia. Other credits include scenic drafting by Sally Jules, carpentry by Michael Schaumloeffel and Herb Oulette, set dressing by Maura Jasper and Jeremy Hollingsworth, box effect construction by Jeremy Hollingsworth, scenic painting by Katia Santibanez and Minako Iwamura, and art direction by Billy Zimmer. Elizabeth Horsburgh was prop master. The production, directed by Marcus Geduld and Victoria Pero, closed after a limited run.