WHITE TRASH GOTHIC is perhaps the best label to stick on Killer Joe, a black comedy now being staged by Renegade Theatre Experiment. Written by Tracy Letts about 15 years before he won the Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County, the play concerns the Smiths, a clan of Texan riffraff who decide to kill their family matriarch for her insurance money. They hire “Killer” Joe Cooper, a police detective and hit man, to carry out the murder, and with no money for a down payment, they offer Young Dottie Smith to him as collateral.

If this sounds trashy and sordid, that’s because it is. But it’s also strangely compelling—a car crash or train wreck analogy might be appropriate in describing the way the Smiths’ poorly laid plans fall apart, bringing them into conflict with Joe, who is portrayed in a subtly terrifying manner by Michael Wayne Rice. The characters are grotesque, and apart from Dottie (Roselyn Hallett), who possesses an insight and humanity that the others lack, none of them arouses much sympathy: not Ansel, the slovenly, leering father (Keith C. Marshall); not his skanky wife (Elisa Valentine); not his no-account son (Alexander Prather). And yet, we still want to see what will happen to them next.

There are also plenty of laughs to be had at their expense, and while the advertisement of the play as “hilariously dark” might be a slight exaggeration, a queasy sense of humor prevails throughout. However, the excellent cast plays it straight, coming off not as tongue-in-cheek parodies of the American underclass that the play is poking fun at but as the real thing. This makes the whole production more believable, chilling and, in a way, funnier than it would be otherwise.

With its nudity and grisly violence, Killer Joe is not for everyone. The violence is carried out in a disturbingly casual manner reminiscent of some of the Coen brothers’ darker films and builds up to a climax that’s like a redneck version of Julius Caesar. The nudity can be disturbing in its own way (the first sexual encounter between Dottie and Joe is creepy beyond words). It’s all part of a play that is sometimes difficult to like but hard not to recommend.

Killer Joe
Through Oct. 2
Historic Hoover Theatre,
1635 Park Ave.,
San Jose