BWW Review: Joe Orton's Dark Comedy LOOT Satirically Examines Societal Stupidity
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble kicks off its "Circa '69" season of significant and adventurous plays that premiered around the time of the Odyssey's 1969 inception with Joe Orton's darkly comic masterpiece LOOT, which asks us to wipe the fluff from our eyes and see society the way he sees it. As a gay man during a time when British society forced artists into the closet, his farce comically examines a sort of rigged system that benefits bullies and oppressors and controls anyone stupid enough to go along with the lies. Sounds too familiar again in our time.
As directed by Bart DeLorenzo, this tale of corrosive wit, dizzying intrigue and classic farce suggests that the only acceptable alternative is to become a criminal, with Orton supplying laughs at everyone's expense along the way.
When LOOT was first performed in the '60s, it shocked audiences with its merciless mockery of conventional propriety and frank depictions of police brutality, religious hypocrisy, as well as both gay and bisexual lifestyles. According to DeLorenzo, Orton's plays haven't aged - and neither have his targets.
As a closeted gay man himself, Orton's outrageous dark comedies and macabre farces scandalized theater audiences in the 1960s with his openly bold sarcasm of law enforcement, born out of his own time in prison with Kenneth Halliwell, an actor and writer who became his life-long mentor, lover, roommate and collaborator, simply "because we were queers."
Handsome, young British actors Robbie Jarvis and Alex James-Phelps star as young thieves Hal and Dennis, "friends with benefits" who have just robbed the bank next to a funeral parlor. And what safer place to hide the money, they surmise, than in the coffin of Hal's recently deceased Mum who is on display in the open casket center stage? It seems like a good plan until they fill the coffin up with the loot and there's no room left for the body. So where can they hide the departed and how will they be able to retrieve the money once the coffin is buried?
Hilarity ensues when the boys attempt to hide the corpse, played by the totally rubber-limbed Selina Woolery Smith, from Hal's recently widowed father, Mr. McCleavy (Nicholas Hormann), and from Fay, the nurse of the recently deceased Mrs. McCleavy (Elizabeth Arends), whose string of elderly husbands have all met with strange deaths immediately after the weddings. And, of course, she has set her sights on the uber-religious widower McCleavy as her next wealthy victim. But in the meantime, a girl has her needs, which Fay has been satisfying under the sheets with Dennis, who also happens to be enjoying liaisons with Hal.
While hiding it as best they can within the one room when they are confined, Fay discovers the plot and manages to claim a cut of the proceeds by helping the boys. After all, aligning with the two will certainly assist her in getting what she wants - her next husband and more money. The trio finally place the body in a large white bag, which they comically attempt to stuff into a wardrobe closet. But soon a knock at the door brings in Inspector Truscott (Odyssey favorite Ron Bottitta stealing the spotlight in his trenchcoat and pipe ala Sherlock Holmes), who is hot on their heels and searching for the stolen loot. As the plan to bury the loot quickly begins to unravel, hilarity ensues.
No doubt the representation of the inept Inspector Truscott stems in part from the inspiration Orton drew from an infamously brutal and law-breaking officer of the time: Metropolitan Police Detective Sergeant Harold Challenor, who career was ostensibly successful with hundreds of arrests and over a dozen commendations. However, allegations of brutality, forced confessions, planted evidence, and increasingly erratic behavior attributed to Challenor are certainly reflected in Truscott's unpredictability, psychopathic tendencies, violence toward suspects, and ruthless ability to frame an innocent man. The truth under the laughter is ever-present thanks to Orton's rapid-fire writing style.
Kudos to costume designer Michael Mullen who offsets the streetwise, Cockney Dennis in sexy suspenders that beg snapping by several characters to the lovely black dress with a peek-a-boo kelly green lining, worn with great style by Arends as Fay while in mourning. Set designer Keith Mitchell manages to provide adequate hiding places both in sight and behind a screen, while lighting designer Christine Ferriter and properties designer Josh La Cour add to the play's overall merriment.
LOOT is the perfect play to open the Odyssey's "Circa '69" season since Orton contributed to an exciting working-class youth culture that swept through the nation in the mid-60s. His first success, the radio play "Ruffian on the Stair," broadcast in 1964, ushered in a run of successes, including "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" in 1964, "Loot" in 1965 and the ever-popular "What the Butler Saw" written in 1967, all shocking and unconventional entertainments that examined moral corruption, authoritarian abuse and hypocrisy. Nothing is safe from Orton's savage wit, whose targets include religion, social attitudes towards death, police brutality and corruption, and everything in between.
Performances of LOOT take place on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 10 (dark July 19-21), with several additional weeknight performances scheduled at the Odyssey Theatre, located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, 90025. Tickets range from $32-$37 with discounts available at select performances for seniors, students and patrons under 30. For reservations and information, call (310) 477-2055 ext. 2 or go to OdysseyTheatre.com.
Photo credit: Enci Box