BWW Review: Desert Rose's LOOT is a Bizarre, Irreverent Hoot
LOOT, a 1965 satirical farce by British enfant terrible Joe Orton, is a difficult production. Any local or regional theater company that takes it on deserves a great deal of respect, not only for its ambition but for its courage. Desert Rose Playhouse, in Rancho Mirage, California, pulls it off with only a few minor glitches, specifically, a few problems with British accents on the part of some of the performers.
The play is a bizarre, dark parody of an English drawing room comedy, akin to Challenger and bin Laden jokes. Mr. Orton's own end in his mid-thirties at the hands of his lover, who then killed himself, would have fit perfectly into the dark plot.
LOOT takes place in the middle-class home of the very decent and very Catholic Mr. McLeavy (Garnett Smith), whose three days' dead wife, currently at home in her closed coffin, is about to be interred. Mr. McLeavy's ne'er-do-well son, Hal (Jason Hull) (a true "rotter" and anything but the quintessential lovable crook) has just robbed a bank with his lover, Dennis (Timothy McGivney), by burrowing in from the funeral home where Dennis works. Faye (Wendy Cohen), the seven times widowed nurse of the late Mrs. McLeavy, has set her sights on Mr. McLeavy, even though she has been shagging Dennis, who wants to marry her. Into this dysfunctional setting comes police detective Truscott (Tom Warrick), posing as an inspector from the water department. Truscott is a brutal officer of the law, perfectly willing to violate the rights of innocent people such as Mr. McLeavy in order to "protect" the public. As played perfectly by Mr. Warrick, Truscott hardly looks strong enough to beat anyone up, but Truscott kicks a confession out of Hal. He needn't have bothered; despite his thoroughly rotten nature, Hal is incapable of telling a lie. No one believes him because the truth about where he and Dennis are hiding the money from the robbery is too far-fetched: first in the cupboard, then in his mother's coffin, and then in the small wooden casket where her organs were placed after she was embalmed. The whole robbery might have gone unsolved if Mrs. McLeavy's glass eyeball hadn't rolled under a piece of furniture.
The cast members achieve several brilliantly comedic performances. Who knew that Jason Hull, the blind Bobby in last season's drama, LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION!, is capable of all those rubber faces? Former Broadway actor Garnett Smith, as the befuddled but honorable Mr. McLeavy, and Tom Warrick, as Truscott, seem to have emerged from KEEPING UP APPEARANCES or some other wacky British sitcom.
Thomas L. Valach's set, with the leather easy chair, looks deceptively normal, even with the coffin in the room. When the action gets going, however, the characters are thrust into an absurd nightmare, from which they cannot seem to awaken, with the coffin coming and going, sometimes holding the money and sometimes holding Faye's "sewing dummy," actually Mrs. McLeavy's mummy-wrapped body. There are many hilarious moments along the way, both supplied by Orton, who himself was imprisoned for, of all things, defacing library books, and by director Jim Strait, who could probably inject humor into a reading of the telephone book.
Orton rarely resisted the urge to shock people, and the script skewers the Catholic church, devout people, and public servants, indicting all of them for hypocrisy. Although much of LOOT's scandalous nature has grown less scandalous with time, other exchanges are more offensive today. I was annoyed by one line impugning the intelligence of women and horrified by Hal's cheerfully telling Truscott that Dennis could not have raped the unharmed "birds" whom he impregnated, because Dennis's actual rape victim lost three teeth in the attack.
There are surprises in LOOT's outrageous plot, and director Jim Strait milks them for all they are worth. Mr. Strait cleverly helps the story unfold with a wink towards the audience, such as the over-the-top reaction from the other characters when Truscott removes his hat and they finally recognize him. Truscott's leaps of illogic are worthy of Sherlock Holmes, and in case the audience misses the joke, he pulls out a Sherlock Holmes pipe. One bit of stage business at the end of Act I evoked out loud reactions from grossed-out members of the audience (I admit I was one), but it was nonetheless hilarious.
The script creates a great deal of apparently unintended confusion, especially for Americans who do not understand the lingo. In his introduction to the play, Mr. Strait explained that British censors originally required Hal and Dennis to be buddies, instead of lovers. When Orton was permitted to reinstate the relationship, in my opinion, he should have explained some of the newly confusing elements of the story. For example, the audience is left wondering how Hal could so casually accept his lover's plan to marry Faye and how he could accompany the obviously bisexual Dennis to houses of ill repute. For that matter, Orton did not explain why Hal's own career ambition was to open a whorehouse with "birds" of a variety of nationalities and races - on its face, that seems to be a strange occupation for a gay man, even if the brothel's doors "swing," which I took to be a reference to catering to both gay and straight men. The gentleman who sat next to me said he thought the play made more sense when Hal and Dennis were merely pals. I'm inclined to agree, but I may be missing something major in the various layers of the script.
This play is not for the faint-hearted. In my view, the script resembles a Stravinski composition in that few listen to Stravinski for diversion. However, in the hands of Jim Strait and his talented cast members, what could have been a culturally significant but uncomfortable theatre experience instead becomes howlingly funny entertainment.
The rest of the production team consists of Paul Taylor (producer), Steve Fisher (stage manager), Mark Demry (costumes), and Phil Murphy (lighting). Additionally, Allan Jensen plays the part of Officer Meadows.
Special mention goes to Mr. Murphy, who has designed the lighting for every Desert Rose production, and to his husband, Robert McCracken II. Mr. Strait noted that Mr. Murphy and Mr. McCracken have purchased every piece of lighting equipment used in the theater. To acknowledge the couple's generosity, Desert Rose renamed its stage to The Phil Murphy and Robert McCracken Stage, in a ceremony at the first performance of LOOT.
LOOT will play at Desert Rose Playhouse through Sunday, October 25, 2015. Performances are Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2:00 p.m. The Desert Rose Playhouse is located just north of Frank Sinatra Boulevard, near the Emperor Buffet, at 69-620 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270. The Box Office opens at 4 p.m. before evening performances and at noon on Sundays. Tickets are $33 for the evening performances and $30 for matinees.Tickets are available at the box office, by phone at 760-202-3000, and by Internet at www.desertroseplayhouse.org. There is no service charge for Internet or phone orders. Season subscriptions are $132.00 for all five shows for Friday and Saturday performances and $120.00 for Sunday matinees.
The rest of Desert Rose Playhouse's 2015-16 season consists of:
A QUEER CAROL by Joe Godfrey, November 13 - December 20, 2015, a modern take on Dickens' classic, featuring Scrooge and Marley as business and personal partners, and Marilyn Monroe as the Ghost of Christmas Past.ANGELS IN AMERICA - PART I, MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, by Tony Kushner, January 15 - February 21, 2016, a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning play about being gay amid conflicting religious and political beliefs - Desert Rose's annual Gay Heritage Production. COCK by Mike Bartlett, March 11 - April 10, 2016, an award winning play performed in the round, without props or set pieces, in which a man who thought he was gay meets his dream woman and engages in the verbal equivalent of a cock-fight between them (hence the title). JUNK by J. Michael Penny, April 29 - May 29, 2016, the world premiere of a new musical, in which two gay men with a large age gap have been offered the contents of a deceased man's house in exchange for tidying it up. It turns out that the house is stuffed with old porn. As the two men sort through the owner's belongings, they begin to learn a great deal about the deceased and about their unusual relationship to one another.
In addition to ticket sales, Desert Rose Playhouse, as a 501(c)(3) organization, must collect a certain percentage of its funds through gifts from the public. Desert Rose must raise $55,000 during this season, and financial donations are gratefully accepted. The address for financial contributions is P.O. Box 2256, Cathedral City, CA 92235.