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