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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
Structurally Loot is a farce revolving around the burial interruptus of one Mrs. McLeavy. The deceased woman was the victim of Fay, a predatory nurse who buried seven husbands in less than a decade and now plans to make Mr. McLeavy husband #8. But before the coffin in the McLeavy living room can be nailed shut, the dead woman's son Hal and Dennis, his bi-sexual lover, decide to put the dead mum in the closet so that they can stash the money from robbing a bank into her coffin before a nosey policeman arrives. That policeman, an obtuse blusterer named Truscott who, convinced that he is a master of disguise, insists that he's a Water Board inspector but acts exactly like a bullying cop in a china shop, inevitably allies himself with the rascals and arrests the hapless widower. (In Joe Orton's world the good guys are drowned in the moral morass of their fellow citizens -- and society generally).
If played right, and to tap into Orton's coal black humor, the farceurs at this mourning scene must play their parts straight-faced and not as comedians looking for laughs. Thus, while there's plenty to tickle your funny bone, the laughter springs from the comic fault line in the characters' duality -- e.g. murder has no effect on Fay's devout Catholicism, Truscott's ineptitude and acceptance of corruption does not diminish his dedication to nailing wrongdoers.
John Tillinger, who directed Loot once before for Manhattan Theatre Club (in 1986), has gotten all this exactly right. He maneuvers his cast through the farcical elements with exquisite timing and without a missed laugh, all the while capturing the author's dissection of a social order in which greed overrides grief.
Most importantly, Mr. Tillinger has filled the pivotal roles with actors who couldn't be better. As McLeavy, the only really honorable character (well, almost-- he's more than ripe for Fay's suggestion to remarry within a fortnight), there's Charles Keating who played the same part in the 1986 MTC production. His subtly low-key performance perfectly offsets the over-the-top insanity all around him.
Kellie Overbey, who was last seen in a minor role in QED, which was essentially a star vehicle for Alan Alda, here proves that she is herself star material. She is a superb Fay, the very model of pious propriety who nevertheless breaks all the commandments. Her confession about doing in Mrs. McLeavy is a riot and a half ("Euthanasia is against my religion so I decided to murder her").
Matt McGrath, last seen doing a stint as the MC in Cabaret, does well by young Hal, who cannot tell a lie but also can't keep out of trouble with the law; so does Austin Lysy as Dennis his lover (as well Fay's) and partner in crime. That leaves Jeffrey Jones who fits the shoes of Truscott, the would be super-hero of Scotland Yard, with gloriously funny ineptitude. His pronouncements represent Orton's linguistic skill and double-edged humor at its most incisive, from "stealing is okay but "policemen, like red squirrels, a must be protected" to his reaction to the money spilling out of the casket: "how dare you involve me in a situation for which no memo has been issued. " At the performance I attended Jones did fleetingly abandon his pose (either because he couldn't help laughing at a zinger about wives or as a single purposeful wink to the audience). Whether intentional or not, it didn't spoil the overall play-it-straight approach.
James Noone's aptly bland bourgeois set provides the farce with its requisite four doors: one door leading to a hallway, one to another room, the door to the large cupboard that alternately holds mum's body and the bank loot and the frequently opened and closed lid of the coffin. You might count the hospital screen hiding some of the business with the corpse as a fifth door. The sight gags, like a wreath in the form of a winning Bingo card, are mercifully (or, regrettably, depending on your taste for such business) kept to a minimum.
I should add that a farce involving mummified corpses, their glass eyes and false teeth, may not be everyone's idea of humor. This is evident in a letter from Orton's Diaries in which a reader who saw the play in 1967 states that she "fled the theater horrified."* For the less squeamish, this is a must-see chance to see this funny and sad farce-noir and understand what the author meant when he wrote: "People think I write fantasy, but I don't. Some things may be exaggerated or distorted, but they're realistic figures. . . There's nothing incredible about it."
Other Reviews of Joe Orton's Plays at CurtainUp
Nasty Little Secrets
Loot at the Pearl Theater Off-Off-Broadway
What the Butler Saw by the New Group and starring WTF favorites Dylan Baker and Peter Frechette
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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