Laughter at the Loeb: Orton There's a Hoot
THEATER Loot written by Joe Orton directed by Andrei Belgrader Through March 15 American Repertory Theatre
Through March 15
American Repertory TheatreIn the '60s, a brash new playwright shocked the British theater-going public with pieces that were violent, decadent, farcical and savagely mocking of establishment values. Together with scandalous details (well, by early '60s standards anyway) of his life, such as his murder by his gay lover, Joe Orton's particular brand of theater seemed to be revolutionary and new. In the year 2000, however, the themes of Loot, with its homosexuality, constant digs at the Catholic-Protestant rivalry and even the portrayal of a highly dysfunctional family, no longer seem as radical or as ground-breaking.
This doesn't mean, however, that the American Repertory Theatre's performance of Loot can be sedate with Orton's story being what it is. At the funeral of Mrs. McLeavy, her son Harold and his gay lover Dennis, having robbed a bank, need a place to hide the money as the police chase after them. They stuff the body in a closet, but scheming nurse Fay (Laurie Williams) discovers their plan and demands to be a part of it. Throw in a shockingly ambivalent and corrupt police inspector Truscott (Jeremy Geidt), a series of farcical cover-ups and Orton's scathing lines, and the potential for a hilarious play, at the very least, should be there. The problem is that the actors had a particularly difficult time finding the humor of Orton's lines and delivered his cynical, casually indifferent quips either with too much ernestness or too little conviction. Throw in a pacing that seems just a bit too slow and the result is nothing more than nervous titters from the audience. And the final straw? The too-ridiculously-fake dead Mrs. McLeavy (played by a painted wooden dummy) that eventually just became too distracting to be funny.
Fortunately though, the second half of the play saw an amazing improvement. This was due largely to the efforts of Geidt, whose Truscott really brings out the flavor of Orton's sardonic lines. Dismissing the corruption of the British police and his own ineptitude with the same casual deadpan manner, Geidt successfully conveys the amorality of Orton's society. And that really is the true genius of Loot: that devil-may-care attitude to any sense of right and wrong or to any constancy at all. None of the characters try too hard to hide their crimes, and they very readily confess it to whomever is interested. The gay lover, Dennis, as played by a very earnest and sympathetic Sean Dugan, easily declares his love for Fay and his wish to marry her. And in this amoral world, all the criminals of the conspiracy end up with money and huge laughs, whilst Mr. McLeavy (played by the stoic Alvin Epstein), who would rather protect his son than defend himself, ends up arrested. In all this amoral absurdity, the high energy camp of the actors finally becomes effective.
Physical comedy was the order of the day in Loot, and particularly rib-tickling was Fay's confession to the murder of Mrs. McLeavy, with melodrama and cheesy music in full gear, and the sorrowful admission that "Euthanasia was against my religion. So I murdered her." Of course, Orton himself objected to the use of any camp in the original productions of his plays, but in modern times, when Orton's once unprecedented criticisms of societal values are no longer so, well, unprecedented, the actors need the energy of camp to let them rip into his lines. So while the ART's version of Loot might not be as provocative as Orton might have originally wished for, the caustic humor of his lines continues to resonate.