Joe Orton, the British playwright whose London hit Entertaining Mr. Sloan proved his brilliance, had his life cut short in 1967 at the age of 34. He was killed by his partner, who committed suicide in recompense for killing Orton. It is the theater world’s great loss, for Orton had experienced the steam of greatness as an exceptional playwright/writer, but not the substance. Whenever a production of his zany, dark comedies is revived, see it to appreciate the frenzy of hyperbolic farce that Orton was marvelous at creating. Impeccable timing and jeweled turn of phrase characterize Orton’s work. He is sardonic, like Wilde; over the top, like Monty Python; an iconic British wit.
Loot, in revival at the Lucille Lortel’s Red Bull Theater until February 9, is one of Orton’s gems. This production, directed by Jesse Berger, conveys Orton’s scorn of entrenched social institutions (religious, judicial, legal, medical). Clearly, the playwright had a rollicking time opening them to ridicule. This is appropriate for us currently; the hypocrisies Orton lays bare, are snatched from the 1960s. Yet, they are immutable now as they were then. In the delivery of the madcap and over-the-top plot extremities, we are able to bear the painful truths expressed underneath. If fraud, official corruption, murder and theft are the stuff of life, at least they can be used as meat to gnaw on for our entertainment sustenance in the hands of a savvy, sharp playwright, able director and acute acting ensemble.
The setting, the McLeavy living room is comfortably furnished with chairs and tables circling the walls, a locked chifferobe and what looks to be a folding screen more befitting a hospital room than a living room. The room is a style cacophony of weird items, the most strange being the coffin with decorative grave flowers at center stage. Thus begins the wackiness which develops into full-blown mayhem.
We discover from Fay, Mrs. McLeavy’s live-in nurse (Rebecca Brooksher), in a discussion with barely sentient, grieving Mr. McLeavy (a hysterical Jarlath Conroy), that the funeral service is today. The lovely nurse is a sweet, unassuming golddigger who has been married and widowed seven times.She is looking to be widowed again, after she marries Mr. McLeavy who is overwhelmed with grieving his wife and straightening out his affairs, especially his confused mind and emotions. While Fay encourages him that a month or so is an appropriate time to remarry, son Hal McLeavy (Nick Westrate) bursts onto the scene. His entrance with his beloved (he is gay) buddy Dennis (he is a polyamorous bisexual), fosters a scene switch into a plot convolution that stirs up the cauldron of madness.
Hal is like a young George Washington; he can not tell a lie once confronted with the truth. Dennis (Ryan Garbayo), the undertaker will transport Hal’s mum to the cemetery.The other reason Dennis is with Hal is that both have committed a bank robbery and Dennis has become the chief suspect after his questioning earlier in the day. Better his questioning than Hal’s which would be disastrous for them both, for Hal, a parboiled Catholic with issues, can’t lie. If the moral contradiction of not being able to lie but having no problem with stealing seems patently absurd, you’re right. It is and so is the hypocrisy it represents; this is one of Orton’s tucked away jewels. The play abounds with them.
Dennis fears he will be pinched if he can’t stash the hot “loot” away from the piercing eyes of one particular copper, Truscott, (Rocco Sisto, who is hilarious in his continually indignant state). Truscott, who later appears in a poor disguise as an official from the Water Board, has been snarling and eying Dennis like a canny German shepherd. It is only a matter of time before Truscott finds him, discovers the evidence and throws him in prison, especially if he asks Hal any questions about the theft.
The loot which has been stashed but the locked armoire i is the first place anyone would look; and Fay, who can sniff out money like a dog sniffs out a bone, has intimated to Hal that she knows the loot is there and will expose them in a blackmail scheme. When she leaves, simultaneously, both spy the coffin with Mrs. McLeavy’s body inside. Hide the loot in the body? Gruesome, bloody horror! Hal is a “good” Catholic and that would be untoward. Besides, this is a farce, no matter how black hearted. Hide the body in the armoire and the loot in the coffin and lock both.? Perfect! That way Hal will not be lying if he has to deny the thousands are inside the wardrobe. And if someone gets a crowbar and breaks open the chiffarobe? They’ll be a bloody hell of a surprise. Mrs. McLeavy has been stuffed like a sausage and pickled with embalming fluid. She’s a real stiff.
The official from The Water Board (investigator Truscott inept disguise) interrupts their plans to check the water system. Hal and Dennis quickly send him off to the pipes, then speedily trundle the coffin to the armoire and lob in the corpse. In their frenetic haste they flip poor ole mummy like they’re hefting a log onto a wood pile. Their antics are hysterical especially in light of Hal’s professed Catholicism that has forbade him to see his mum naked but allows him to manhandle her remains. The woman hasn’t been able to RIP since she passed.
After this inglorious treatment, the miscreants lock the chiffarobe and dump their cash booty in the coffin sealing it just in time to escape detection. Truscott figures his inept disguise and circular questioning will eventually trip up the thieves so he can pin them like dead insects with the evidence, pulling out all the stops in his “intelligence” to do so. Orton’s characterization of detective Truscott, is an absurdity of confusion, all in the service of quick humor; Truscott is brilliant-inane, hypocritical-legalistic, corrupt but honest about it, opportunistic and self-serving. He is this and more in the interest of feathering his own nest, but money is his object.
The body-cash swap heightens our belly laughs. We see how these ingrates have dumped Mrs. McLeavy in a “most shameful position.” Added to the romp is Truscott’s indignation and frustration at the suspects “innocence” made all the more hysterical by his ridiculous questions which are as twisted as their answers. The scene is surprising and wonderful.
When Fay and Mr. McLeavy enter the fray, they contribute with flippant repartee. The pace steps up, high jinks fueled by understatement, irony. Orton weaves the scenes so the hilarity builds to climax in an even more preposterous and lunatic second act. Plot complications abound and mysteries are uncovered. The innocent are proven guilty and the guilty are shown to be innocent. Such are the pleasant spoils of ambition in a corrupt universe. For irony, Hal’s good, Catholic conscience has remained spotless. He has not seen his mum naked, and he never lied. He’s good to go. We just don’t know where.
The production does not disappoint. It is a pleasure to see the mostly American actors honor this astounding playwright and make him known to another generation of playgoers who can appreciate brilliant farce and black comedy. That said, it must be acknowledged that Orton is uniquely English. Though there is an opaque line between our countries and cultures differentiating America from England, there is a nuanced sensitivity that comes with presenting English cultural and social humor. It is more felt than studied, intuited than practiced. All humor is generic to place, culture, time, range and social consciousness. Very simply, there are some phrases which can fall flat to some ears if not comprehended in the way that the culture normatively means them to be. In this aspect the production’s humor was flattened by our cultural limitations. However, Orton’s words remain true if one has ears to hear them.
Loot is being performed at the Red Bull Theater by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation. George Forbes is the Executive Director; Jesse Berger is the Founding Artistic Director and Evan O’Brient is the Managing Director.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics, at this link: Click Here.