Between 1964 and 1967, there was a misbehaving young British playwright named Joe Orton who loved to taunt producers and audiences alike with wild anarchic farces that assaulted notions of proper behavior, engaged in witty but oft-times rude wordplay, and threw theatrical convention on, as they say in London, its arse. That he was bludgeoned to death by his jealous lover in 1967 only added to his notoriety and helped to assure that his tragically limited output would occupy a significant place in English theatrical history.
But then time happened. Television programs such as “Benny Hill” and “Monty Python” adapted his style and eventually adapted Orton’s propensity for comic impropriety and the profane. American culture eagerly followed suit with programs such as “Beavis and Butthead” or an evening’s worth of “Adult Swim” made anarchy so commonplace that one could trace Orton’s iconoclasm right down to “The Book of Mormon.”
It is disappointing to have to approach Orton’s crazily off-center 1966 “Loot,” now enjoying an entirely respectable revival at the Westport Country Playhouse, as an historical relic, but that seems to be the only way to fully understand and appreciate it today. For what Westport’s Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy has mounted on stage is a witty, funny extended sketch reminiscent of material that we have watched hundreds of times on “Saturday Night Live” or encountered during the wickedly inane correspondents’ reports on “The Daily Show.”
See what you started, Joe Orton. In the years since you’ve passed, we have met the absurd and it is us.
Now admittedly the laughs in Kennedy’s production of “Loot” still come at a greater speed than they do in most contemporary comedies. But they no longer shock; they no longer outrage. They amuse, particularly for their still-witty word play and their satiric, occasionally caustic commentary on middle class drudgery and societal decorum. What was once outlandish in “Loot” is now more “been there, done that.”
Stolen money hidden in the coffin of a character’s recently deceased mother? The body then removed and dragged around the stage and passed off as a tailor’s dummy? How many “Weekend at Bernie’s” have we spent? How many versions of “Death at a Funeral” have their been?
Two appealing young men engaged not only in subtle criminal activity but perhaps in a more–wink! wink!–intimate relationship? How many ambiguously gay duos have we met over the years? And how many admired antiheroes have engaged in genuinely more deadly serious activities than a single bank robbery? Let’s not forget that “Breaking Bad” returns to TV this week, and those sexy young Dracula’s on “The Vampire Diaries” have been responsible for quite a bit of collateral damage over the years.
And Orton’s attitude toward those once respected pillars of society, the police? His slyly devastating portrait of the overconfident and uber-incompetent Inspector Truscott no doubt offended plenty at the time, but Truscott almost literally turns up a few years later in Orton’s fellow countryman Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth” as Inspector Doppler (read that as Plodder in Shaffer’s tricky mind), by then a recognized caricature. Portrayals of inept law enforcement are today as common as the latest season of Fox’s “The Following” in which the FBI’s pathetic weekly failure bore more similarity to the Keystone Kops.
And there’s no need to discuss Orton’s darts at the Catholic Church. Little did he know that in the interim, they’d take care of demolishing their own image and destroying their own integrity without any help from a prescient British playwright.
It is probably impossible to recapture the deliciously appalling anarchy that greeted Orton’s work and which still packed a punch up into the early ’80’s. Kennedy’s production tries to deliver some wallops, but it mostly feels just too tame. Liv Rooth certainly tries as the plotting, gold-digging nurse Fay who’d eagerly dispatch her current charge to find a more lucrative client. Although Rooth does sort of push Fay’s sexual “aptitudes,” she doesn’t seem to go far enough to match the absurdist patter of the dialogue or even the appalling extremes of her actions.
Nor is there much chemistry between the two young men at the center of the play. If they are to be portrayed as a more intimate than just partners in crime, it really wasn’t apparent to this reviewer. As Hal, Devin Norik is suitably dense as he lags a few seconds or more behind his partners-in-crime, which include his pal, Dennis, and eventually Fay, in reacting to the close calls they encounter as his father, the ailing Mr. McLeavy, and the late-arriving police become more suspicious. Norik’s Hal is appropriately oblivious or deliberately unfeeling towards the ignoble treatment of his mother’s body. But overall his character seems more concerned about his own welfare than anyone else’s, including his pal’s.
Zach Wegner is equally too self-concentrated as the quicker member of the duo. It’s hard to see the two guys as a team, let alone friends, and though there’s a suggestion of some warmth and opportunity between Rooth’s Fay and Wegner’s Dennis, the two guys remain fairly nondescript.
John Horton, however, is wonderfully befuddled and rather tragically powerless against all the goings on around his house. Horton does offer some depth as a once proud and stronger man reduced by illness to circumstances that allow him to be taken advantage of by those around him. His performance makes it clear that he was probably not an easy man to like or put up with, but he does inject some pathos into the surroundings.
David Manis’ Truscott does raise the absurdity the level once he arrives on the scene. The most successful humor here and throughout the play are the verbal assaults on propriety and logic that keep the characters in a constant flux of motion and uncertainty. Deborah Hecht works her magic on the cast’s ability to master the language and accents so that the intelligent verbal nonsense comes across loud and clear.
Andrew Boyce’s set neatly replicates the drawing room of the McLevey household where Mrs. McLevey is to be laid out for viewing, while Emily Rebholz has provided 60’s-era appropriate outfits, including a slightly tight nurses’ uniform for Fay and a traditional bobby costume for Truscott’s assistant Meadows.
I’m not sure if Kennedy upped the physical zaniness of this production that it would made that much a difference. It’s harder to shock an audience these days and that’s not what Orton wrote anyway. What he did write was an iconoclastic work for its time that certainly freed up the theater to be adventurous, audacious and more challenging to its audience, under the somewhat protective guise of comedy. Without “Loot” it would probably have taken the theater a bit longer to arrive at “Noises Off!” or “Spamalot” or perhaps even television to not be so ready for a Scarlett O’Hara to come down the stairs of Tara curtain rod and all or to take the chance on hearing Archie Bunker flush a toilet on an early episode of “All in the Family.”
It seems to me that a young man whose idea of anarchy was to cut out and replace photos and pictures in library books for which he served actual jail time (just think how valuable some of those ingeniously defaced books would be worth today) did sense that a change was in the air (“A Hard Day’s Night” anyone?) and that theatre needed a good kick. “Loot,” “What the Butler Saw,” “The Ruffian on the Stair,” and ultimately “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” the latter perhaps being the Orton that would hold up the best today, all helped to usher in an era marked by a new freedom to be rude, reckless, insulting and intelligent.
“Loot” plays through August 3. For tickets, call the box office at (203) 227-4177, or toll-free at 1-888-927-7529 or visit the Playhouse website at www.westportplayhouse.org.
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