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 and writer but not the full substance.
Whenever a production of one of his zany, dark comedies is revived, it is a worthwhile night out to see it performed live and appreciate the frenzy of the kind of hyperbolic farce that Orton was marvelous at creating. There is nothing like his impeccable timing, his genius, and his jeweled turn of phrase. Orton’s work is sardonic, like Wilde; over the top, like Monty Python. His humor is iconically British.
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 full-on intention to sear and scorn every entrenched social institution (religious, judicial, legal, medical), while having a rollicking time doing it. This is welcome ridicule for us in the 21st century; and the corruptions and hypocrisies Orton lays bare, culling their ridiculousness from the 1960s, are as 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. And somehow 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 is the McLeavy living room, 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. We realize 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), who is talking with the barely sentient, grieving Mr. McLeavy (a hysterical Jarlath Conroy), that the funeral service is today. The lovely nurse is a sweet, unassuming golddigger. She has been married and widowed seven times and is looking to be widowed again, after she marries the grieving Mr. McLeavy, who at the moment is trying to straighten out his confused wits. As Fay encourages him that a month or so is an appropriate time to let pass before remarrying, son Hal (Nick Westrate) bursts into the room with his buddy Dennis, the undertaker, fostering a scene switch into a plot convolution that stirs up the cauldron of madness.
We assume that Dennis (Ryan Garbayo) is here because he will transport Hal’s mum to the cemetery, but we learn the real reason is that he and Hal have committed a bank robbery the previous night and Dennis has become the chief suspect after being questioned. Better that than Hal’s being questioned, 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, 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” in a forgiving place away from the piercing eyes of one particular copper, Truscott (Rocco Sisto, hilarious in his continually indignant state). The loot has been stashed in a locked armoire. It 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. After Fay runs off to tend to Mr. McLeavy, Hal and Dennis simultaneously 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. 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 that thousands are inside the wardrobe.
When the official from the Water Board (investigator Truscott in inept disguise) abruptly visits to check the water system, Hal and Dennis trundle the coffin to the armoire and lob mummy inside while Truscott checks the pipes. In their frenetic haste they fling around the corpse like they’re hefting a log onto a wood pile. Their antics are hysterical especially in light of Hal’s professed Catholicism, which has forbidden him to see his mum naked but allows him to manhandle her remains.
After this inglorious treatment the miscreants lock the chiffarobe and dump their cash booty in the coffin sealing it just in time to escape Truscott’s detection. But no matter. Truscott is determined to discover the loot and pin the culprits like dead insects if he has to pull out all the stops in his “intelligence” to do so. In the characterization of detective Truscott, Orton has achieved comic mastery. Truscott is the epitome of conflicting traits, all in the service of quick humor; he 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.
The body-cash swap heightens our belly laughs. We see how Hal and Dennis have pitched Mrs. McLeavy in a position that is far from upright and is indecent to boot. Added to the humor of the romp is Truscott’s indignation at being unable to get a straight answer from the two double-talking idiots. His annoyance is made all the more hysterical by his ridiculous commentary which is as twisted as theirs.
The flippant repartee, irony and understatement that Fay and Mr. McLeavy contribute when they join the crazies heightens the scene. Orton weaves it all together so the hilarity builds to a fever pitch. The effect is even more preposterous and lunatic in the second act when additional mysteries are uncovered and the innocent are indeed proven guilty and the guilty shown to be innocent. Such are the pleasant spoils of ambition in a corrupt universe. And ultimately, Hal’s conscience as a good Catholic has remained spotless. He has not seen his mum naked (though it nearly happened) and he never lied. He’s good to go. We just don’t know where.
The production does not disappoint and 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. And though there is a 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 more 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 is 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.