KPBS AIRDATE: JUNE 30, 1999
Cops, Catholics, death, filial devotion, mothers, marriage – how many sacred cows can you skewer in 2 hours’ time? In the warped world-view of Joe Orton, the number is limitless.
Orton’s outrageous 1965 comedy was originally entitled “Funeral Games,” but the English literary bad-boy of the ‘60s finally settled on “Loot.” The pitch-black comedy is full of ghoulish characters and absurd situations that expose the inanities and hypocrisies of Orton’s native land – but most of the insanity aptly applies across the sea. So macabre that it took years to find an audience (but has had a good shelf-life ever since), “Loot” is often considered to be the darkest and edgiest of Orton’s dark, edgy comedies.
The story concerns a young Mod-boy and his male lover, who’ve stolen quite of bit of cash from a local bank, and they can’t figure out where to stash the loot. The man’s mother has just died, and the coffin has arrived for the funeral. A nice, big, empty box — what better place to stash the stash (while stuffing poor, dead, naked Mom upside-down in a cupboard)? The young guy’s father is pounced upon by his late wife’s killer nurse, who’s eager to wed the whining, pining widower. Into this merry pack of twisted mourners comes a water inspector of the Pink Panther variety, drawn into investigating the oodles of undeniably odd behaviors around him.
At the height of his career, at the tender age of 34, Orton’s own life ironically followed the comic-tragic dimensions of his work. In 1967, he was brutally murdered by his longtime lover, Kenneth Halliwell (a grisly story chillingly captured in the 1987 movie “Prick Up Your Ears”).
Seven years ago, the La Jolla Playhouse did an aptly insane take on Orton’s “What the Butler Saw,” but it seems to be a bit less daring this time out. Neel Keller has chosen a rather understated approach to the whole whacked-out proceedings. Sometimes that’s the best take on farce, and might have worked better in an earlier era, when the play was still shocking. This stuff is tame by current standards, and should be goosed up to be outrageous, if it can no longer be scandalous.
The nurse could be significantly sexier and more salacious at first sight. Fiona Gallagher’s madly manipulative character unfolds slowly instead, which is an okay choice, but a much less funny one than it could be. Nick Ullett is humorously hand-wringing as the ridiculously jingoistic, grieving husband. And Tony-winner Tom McGowan, making a welcome return to the Playhouse, is pretty hilarious as Truscott, the detective you hate to love. “Any deception I practiced,” he says apologetically to the sordid assemblage, “was never intended to deceive you.”
Above all, Allen Moyer’s set captures the essence of Ortonian humor; downstairs is a nicely detailed middle-class English parlor, while upstairs is a whole other world: a re-creation of Orton’s own photo-festooned bedroom, here the haunt of the slightly clueless robber/prankster/pathological truth-teller, Hal, the McLeavy son. Matt McGrath, plays this androgynous role in a charmingly witless fashion, but with an annoyingly whiney voice.
The first act takes a long time to pick up speed, but the second act rockets through all the tying up of wildly loose ends. The pace increases, and so does the level of humor.
So, basically, what you get most from this production is the slapstick: the naked mom in the cupboard, said Mom’s lost eye rolling around on the floor, the farcical comings and goings. The comedy comes primarily in the physical form. In that dimension, the direction is spot-on, but Orton is as much about words as deeds. His subtle twists of language can be evilly, devilishly funny. How about a self-referencing theater line like the following, from the scammy, scummy cop: “What has just taken place had better go no further than these three walls.” You gotta love a play that takes absolutely nothing seriously.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.