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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the September 25, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `Loot’

Theatrical revivals tend to appeal to us with a rose-scented

whiff of nostalgia. McCarter Theater’s season-opening staging of Joe

Orton’s "Loot," on the other hand, which received its first

London production in 1966, could not be more timely.

Imagine having your bedroom invaded by Attorney General John Ashcroft,

with perhaps a beefy Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge standing guard

outside the front door, and you’ll understand how "Loot" director

Daniel Fish has reached to the heart of this anti-authoritarian comedy.

Orton’s taut, two-act farce is also jam-packed with such devilish

dialogue and nattering non-sequiturs that it’s equally timely for

a much-needed serving of spontaneous laughter.

Orton (RIP), no doubt had his own axe to grind with authority. In

1962 he was charged with "malicious damage" to 83 public library

books for which he served a six-month jail sentence. In this story

of a working-class household, a death in the family, and a pair of

untried young bank robbers, Orton homes in on British small mindedness,

its perennial battles of religious groups, and, most importantly,

its knack of keeping up appearances at all costs.

The entire play takes place in the bedroom of the recently

deceased Mrs. Mary McLeavy, whose wreath-riddled coffin stands alone

on a metal trestle at center stage — sometimes with a corpse,

sometimes without. Set designer Christine Jones places the action

in a wide wedge of space festooned with floral wallpaper. Not surprising

in such bourgeois surroundings, except that this wallpaper is black

and sports huge sprays of purple flowers and green foliage.

Leading the cast with an air of deliciously mournful resignation is

Martin Rayner as the recently widowed Mr. McLeavy. Known as "the

leading Catholic layman for 40 miles," McLeavy thinks the police

force is "hamstrung by red tape" and wants to obey authority

at all costs. In an eerily familiar comment, he assures the invading

police detective — posing as a man from the water board —

"You have a duty to do. My personal freedom must be sacrificed."

While McLeavy prepares to set out for his wife’s funeral, he is propositioned

by Nurse Fay (Fiona Gallagher), a pious Catholic blonde who has been

through seven husbands in less than a decade. Fay admonishes him to

remarry at once — preferably to someone just like herself. She

has a couple of ulterior motives, of course.

As McLeavy’s son Hal, Tom Story puts in a particularly persuasive

performance. Clad in a dark suit, with choirboy good looks, Hal’s

thievery and philandering have brought him repeat visits to Borstal,

England’s notorious boys’ reformatory. "Another stretch will be

death to my ambitions," he announces. And Nurse Fay complains

that "a Papal dispensation is needed" just to dust his room.

Hal also has a tragic flaw: he cannot tell a lie," a fact that

forces his partners in crime to come up with ever more inventive means

of evading the law.

Jeremy Webb as Hal’s mate Dennis is equally at home as a fresh-faced

criminal in training. Although the duo’s previous theft of ladies

overcoats made them the laughing stock in criminal circles, Dennis

feels if he can just prevent Hal from telling the truth, they may

just get away with a sweet 100,000 pounds. Another advantage Dennis

has over his Catholic partner is that he doesn’t believe in Hell.

"That’s typical of your upbringing, baby," Hal tells him.

"You were given every luxury: atheism, breast-feeding, circumcision.

I had to make my own way."

As detective Truscott, Mark Nelson plays the invading law as a pipe-smoking

spoof of Sherlock Holmes shot with a vein of violence. Clad in brown

trench coat and tweed hat and posing as a functionary of the Metropolitan

Water Board, Truscott abandons every trapping of the so-called "rule

of law" from search warrants to civil rights. During one scene,

he gives Hal a beating; as the young man lies on the floor, the officer’s

boot to his head and his nose bloodied, he’s told: "Under any

other political system, I’d have you on the floor in tears." Which

is exactly where we see him.

As Truscott tries to get to the bottom of the bank job, the money

is stashed in Mrs. McLeavy’s coffin and her corpse unceremoniously

tipped into the closet. There she sets as the householders’ plodding

logic is also stood on its head. Eventually, in one of the play’s

funniest logical sinkholes, detective Truscott debates whether Hal’s

quick confession to the bank job has made him "the stupidest or

the cleverest bank robber in England."

Rife with lunatic British humor, "Loot" also contains a tantalizing

dose of Ionesco’s theater of the absurd. Director Fish takes full

measure of this, slowing down the slapstick enough to relish the bracing

dialogue and punctuate it with evocative pauses. "The process

by which the police arrive at the solution to a mystery is itself

a mystery," Truscott explains. Adding, to the audience’s delight:

"What has taken place here is scandalous and had better go no

farther than these two walls."

Even though not all members of this well-matched ensemble can be counted

on to hang on to their British accents, they know their stuff. And

thanks to their efforts, we can all have fun at the theater.

— Nicole Plett

Loot, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787.

$24 to $47. Performances continue to September 30.

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