The case of Jeffrey Dahmer horrified the nation in the early 1990s. Dahmer had raped and tortured 17 young male victims, dismembering and even cannibalizing some. Fiction writer Joyce Carol Oates, who has never shied away from sick violence, published a New Yorker short story, “Zombie,” based largely on Dahmer. Later, she expanded the narrative into a novella, told from the first-person point of view of “Quentin P.,” the semi-fictional killer. Of apparent and macabre interest to Ms. Oates was the fact that Dahmer had drilled holes through the skulls of several of his drugged victims and poured acid into their brains, attempting to create docile, sexual zombies. Bill Connington has adapted the novella to the stage. Mr. Connington’s psychopathic serial killer delivers a monologue with a mostly flat affect, much like a lobotomized patient or his ideal zombie. This may be useful to capture Quentin P.’s sheer incomprehensibility (ironically, extant footage of Dahmer interviews suggest that he had a personality, however dulled), but it does not always make for riveting theater.
Connington’s Quentin P. is a more palatable, sanitized version of Oates’ character and the play suffers for it. His adaptation doesn’t fully let us into the killer’s mind. It doesn’t give us a sense of why Quentin P., an intelligent and fairly educated man, could truly believe, for example, that inserting an ice pick through the eyes and into the brains of his victims would make them love him. It doesn’t help us fathom his capacity for absolute, unadulterated evil.
Whereas Oates’ novella slowly builds the action to the point for which the novel is named, Connington’s Quentin P. simply blurts much of it out at the beginning, rendering later shocks anticlimactic. And, where Oates’ character is a clear racist and drips with contempt for everyone from his father to his probation officer (in the book and play he has been convicted of a sexual offense, as had the real Dahmer), Mr. Connington’s Quentin P. is subdued, flattened. He’s not even all that scary and certainly not as frightening as Mr. Connington wants him to be. It’s almost as if he, himself, has been lobotomized.
Despite his clear familiarity with the part (Zombie debuted at last year’s New York International Fringe Festival), Mr. Connington seems squeamish in his role. In his attempt to strip a persona from Quentin P. and emulate a stereotypical psychopath, a la Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Mr. Connington enunciates words cautiously and self-consciously, sometimes inadvertently channeling Mrs. Doubtfire instead of Norman Bates. Mr. Connington permits himself the occasional outburst—for example, when Quentin P. grades his first four zombie-making attempts as “Fs”— but, rather than terrifying us these explosions make us grateful for the change of pace.
Props are sparse. There’s a small table, an overhead lamp, two chairs, and a chess set in front of which sits a mannequin. The mannequin is used to demonstrate Quentin P.’s bizarre love (and hatred) for his victims, his ice pick technique, and his sexual torture, but it wears thin after a while. I kept thinking how interesting it would have been to introduce, however briefly, Quentin’s father, or his probation officer, or some of the other minor characters from the novella, rather than having Quentin P. describe them in his monotonous voice. Thomas Caruso’s direction and Deidre Broderick’s sound design are fine, though perhaps a bit too prone to gimmickry, such as employing rumbles of thunder when Quentin P. utters something particularly creepy. Joel Silver’s lighting design is inventive and makes great use of shadows.
Mr. Connington tries hard; he really does. He should be commended for even approaching this difficult subject. Yet, he never truly immerses himself in the psychopathy of Quentin P., preferring to stand at its edges, testing the waters. Perhaps it’s an impossible task. Perhaps Oates has already found, in fiction, the best vehicle for this tale’s delivery.