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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review

Comedy, sir, is a serious business. ---David Garrick

In a world run by fools, the writer can only chronicle the doings
of fools or their victims. And because the world is a cruel and heartless
place, he will be accused of not taking his subject seriously. . . But laughter
is a serious business, and comedy a weapon more dangerous than tragedy.
Which is why tyrants treat it with caution. . .
---Joe Orton, as quoted by John Lahr

Jean Cocteau Repertory, a company with an unabashed predilection for the classics, seems primed to surprise audiences whenever it sneaks out of that mode. With Joe Orton's cheeky masterpiece Loot, it has found a fascinating tone for unraveling the dark corners the play inhabits.

Loot focuses on the farces into which public institutions (most importantly, the police) have been transformed. But, as director Scott Shattuck wisely appreciates, it should not be treated as a farce dramatically. This is not a light comedy and is spoiled when played for its laughs.

Which is not to say it's not filled with laughs and farcical elements. Mr. McLeavy (Harris Berlinsky) is an innocent man mourning the death of his wife. His son, Hal (Tim Deak), in cahoots with an undertaker named Dennis (Charles Parnall) who is also his lover, burglarizes the bank next door to the funeral parlor. When an unethical Conan Doyle-esque detective named Truscott (Craig Smith) starts snooping around, Hal and Dennis decide to stash the loot in Mrs. McLeavy's coffin. Since both can't fit there, they move the corpse to the wardrobe, setting in motion the play's trademark dilemma of what to do with the body next. The main cast of characters also includes Fay (Tracey Atkins), the nurse who killed Mrs. McLeavy, plans to marry and then kill Mr. McLeavy and is, for some reason, the object of Dennis's affection.

Orton's strength is in illuminating the sadly comic disconnect that fuels his characters' (and society's) moral bankruptcy. It's a building phenomenon in which even the innocent learn to see and hear only the expedient. When McLeavy tries to make a sensible point, "Don't Protestants have feet then?,"Fay conjures up the endemic sort of rationalization: "The Holy Father hasn't given a ruling on the subject and so, as far as I am concerned, they haven't".  This leads, in turn, to Truscott (who has introduced himself as a representative of the local Water Board) accepting the sight of the corpse as, without question, a tailor's dummy and, later and most classically, taking umbrage that someone "dare...involve me in a situation for which no memo has been issued."  The play's topsy-turvy conclusion follows not from irony but as night follows day.

Here, no matter how preposterous, everything must be accomplished without the slightest bit of winking. Three familiar Cocteau company members fill the play's most important shoes, and combine to acquit this notion flawlessly. Berlinsky conveys the perplexed pain of the new widower who must set aside his anguish to endure assaults from Fay, Hal and Truscott. As Hal, the criminal with an unfortunate penchant for telling the truth, Deak is near-perfect. And as the Sherlock wannabe, Smith is spot-on. Together they carry the show. Parnall's Dennis is innocuous but not memorable; Orton leaves plenty of room for the latter, but Parnall never cashes in. Only Tracey Atkins sings a truly sour note. Her version of the black widow nurse seems drawn on a different canvas, never finding the means to avoid a performance that is far too broad, not to mention over-acted, for this carefully composed staging. Happily, the strength of everything else prevents the play from steering off-course.

Robert Joel Schwartz has made exceptionally good use of the stage and careful direction has permitted the actors to move about with ease, notwithstanding an ever-present coffin and, at times, a full-sized corpse as well. The room is furnished and the costumes are designed in keeping with the period and look of detective shows Loot not-so-subtly mocks, and complement director Shattuck's concept well.

Coming a season after the playwright's staged biography, Nasty Little Secrets (see link below), Loot reminds us of the triumph and the tragedy that was Joe Orton. This is a great opportunity to see Orton's work as it ought to be viewed.

Editor's Note: This review crossed the upload of my review of Frank Rich's collection of theatrical reviews and essays, Hot Seat. On checking for Orton's name in the index I found Rich's review of the 1986 Manhattan Theatre Club production of this play, also filled with praise and in this case including Fay. She was played by none other than Zoe Wannamaker, currently in the title role of Elektra

CurtainUp's review of Nasty Little Secrets

by Joe Orton 
Directed by Scott Shattuck 
with Harris Berlinsky, Tracey Atkins, Tim Deak, Charles Parnell, Craig Smith and Jason Crowl
Set Design: Robert Joel Schwartz
Costume Design: Susan L. Soetaert
Lighting Design: Jonathan R. Polgar 
Jean Cocteau Repertory at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery (@Bond) (212) 677-0060 
opened November 22 closes February 12, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman November 30, 1998

The Broadway Theatre Archive


©Copyright 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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