Back in the mid-1960s, Joe Orton, the late, lamented, bad boy British playwright, burned up the theater world with three outrageous farces. (“Outrageous” used in its original, literal sense of inspiring outrage.) “Loot,” the current FSU/Asolo Conservatory production of one of his farces, shows us what the outrage is all about. The play is a slaughterhouse for sacred cows. These include dogged detectives, noble nurses, religion in general, Catholicism in particular, sexual repression, the sanctity of the British family and respect for the dead.
The plot? A young lad’s bisexual lover works as an undertaker at a funeral home next to a bank. The pair tunnel into the bank, steal a ton of loot and stash it in a wardrobe in the lad’s house. Unfortunately, a thuggish detective pokes his nose in, pretending to be from the waterworks to avoid the tedious paperwork of search warrants. Er, fortunately, the lad’s mum is dead — the victim of a serial killer nurse. To avoid detection, the lads stuff the money in the coffin, and they put the corpse in the wardrobe. Corpse and money change places repeatedly. A glass eye rolls away. Human rights are abused, and common decency violated. This goes on for a while as Orton dials the outrage up to 11. Ultimately, the guilty are rewarded and the innocent punished.
This truncated summary may sound hilarious, but it doesn’t really say why it’s so hilarious on stage. Orton, for want of a better term, plays it straight. (His material reminds me of that Monty Python undertaker sketch where the bereaved son is informed they can bury, burn or dump his mother — and nobody ever cracks a smile.)
Director Jonathan Epstein plays it straight, too. No winking, mugging, elbows to the ribs or giggles. He offers us an absurd, amoral, bizarro-world universe where black is white, good is bad and up is down — and nobody seems to notice. (Except for the one innocent person who gets what’s coming to him.) Nobody in this comedy knows they’re in a comedy, and that’s why the comedy works. Bravo.
Epstein’s comic timing is equally sharp — a clockwork outrage, if you will. The reactions, pauses, double-takes and slow burns are all perfect. Kudos also for movement coach Eliza Ladd and fight choreographer Brian Nemiroff for the flow of bodies in space. The detective slaps the lad around; up goes the corpse; down goes the corpse; hello, here come the handcuffs. This staging is as much a dance as a performance.
This all takes place in the confined environment of a single set: the deliberately tatty, ratty, working class, East End home of the McLeavy family. Think creating a depressing, dingy set is a thankless task, eh? If the set designer does an excellent job, they inspire “ecchs” as opposed to “ooohs” and “ahhs.” That said, Chris McVicker did an excellent job.
As to the second-year conservatory student actors, they all seem to be having the time of their lives.
Jory Murphy and Matthew Anderson make a nice comic duo portraying Hal, the rotten-but-honest son and Dennis, the oversexed undertaker, respectively. These are not bright boys. “Stupid is funny,” as a wise comedian once said.
Brian Owen puts in an inspired comic performance as Truscott of the Yard. Essentially, he’s a self-satisfied, self-righteous rotter: a man with no morals whatsoever, who’s bloatedly moralistic about it. On top of that, he’s a bloviating parody of Sherlock Holmes, complete with deerstalker, pipe and magnifying glass. Truscott starts off with a series of dazzling deductions, but he fails to notice the corpse in the room. It’s a brilliantly written character — and the comic mainspring of the play. Owen brings him to life.
Paul Herbig is fine as Meadows, Truscott’s robotic bobby sidekick, mangling the English language or suspects as the need arises. Michael Frishman channels the father’s increasingly tattered presence. Mr. McLeavy ceaselessly suffers — the play’s designated victim. Orton sets you up to laugh at him. The gag is deliberately uncomfortable; Frishman doesn’t shy away from it.
Nurse Fay (Olivia Williamson) cloaks herself in heaven’s righteousness, as opposed to that of the state. She marries and murders for money. Poor suffering Mr. McLeavy is the next disposable hubby on her list, which is why she just dispatched Mrs. McLeavy. She alternates between sexy, sweet and saintly, never noticing that her walk doesn’t match her talk.
Speaking of talk, Orton’s play is stuffed with savagely funny dialogue. Here’s a sample: “Reading isn’t an occupation we encourage among police officers. We try to keep the paperwork down to a minimum.”
“The process by which the police arrive at the solution to a mystery is, in itself, a mystery.”
“Bury her naked? My own mum? It’s a Freudian nightmare.”
“The Ten Commandments. She was a great believer in some of them.”
Bad people say nice things and it’s funny. Hypocrisy is the fuel of farce, after all. Orton didn’t discover that fact. His genius was unplugging the machinery of moral punishment. Tartuffe isn’t always punished in real life, after all. Real-life hypocrites are frequently rewarded. Crime often pays.
As Orton once said, “I suppose I’m a believer in original sin. People are profoundly bad, but irresistibly funny.”
The original joke is still on us.
IF YOU GO
“Loot” runs through Jan. 19, at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org/conservatory for more information.
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