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Something's missing from Loot. Could it be British actors?

Wednesday, Aug 8 2001
The brief, savage life of Joe Or-ton ended in 1967, when his boyfriend bashed in his skull with a hammer. But Orton was still one of the representative men of the '60s. Flamboyant, pissed off, self-contradictory, wild: He rose and fell on his gripe with civilization, especially British civilization, which (as a British playwright) he couldn't do without. "I'm a success," he quipped, in one of many remarks about smashing and chopping that have a strange echo in light of his death, "because I've taken a hatchet and hacked my way in."

Orton's Loot is a bank-robber farce revolving around the funeral of Mrs. McLeavy. Her rebellious, not-really-grieving son Hal has just knocked off a bank with his lover, Dennis, and they need a place to hide the loot. Mrs. McLeavy's coffin, for complicated reasons, looks like a perfect spot, so they dump her body into a cupboard and seal up the money. Later they bundle Mrs. McLeavy in a sheet and stash her behind a curtain. When a detective chasing the loot finds the sheet-wrapped corpse, he asks, "Whose mummy is this?" and Hal answers -- truthfully -- "Mine." He means a different kind of mummy, but never mind. Hal never tells a lie. He can't tell a lie. It makes escaping with the loot rather difficult. "If I come back and find you've been tellin' the truth all afternoon," Dennis warns him, "we're through."

Oddly enough, this broad farce needs a delicate performance from the cast, because plowing through it full throttle doesn't work. The usual mistake is to produce Orton's plays like fast-motion skits from Benny Hill, with cops dashing after robbers and big-breasted nurses losing their shirts. The comedy will droop if it slows down, sure enough, but Orton's characters also need nuance. Director Reid Davis knows this; he avoids the speed trap, but loses Orton's intensity.

Greg Lucey plays Mr. McLeavy as a cartoon of a bent-forward, suffering, clueless old bourgeois, but without energy. (What's the point of a caricature without energy?) The same goes for Andy Alabran, as Hal. He's a cartoon of a rebellious son, and Alabran rises to real farce only when Hal can act gay with his boyfriend. The actors who find a strong balance are Danny Wolohan, as Dennis, and Jonathan Gonzalez, as the detective Truscott. Wolohan has picked up a near-perfect Scottish accent from somewhere and plays the greedy thug with a shining, clever duplicity. Truscott pretends to be from the Water Board, but then starts arresting people. In Gonzalez's hands he reminds me of the truant officer in A Clockwork Orange, all ruthless suspicion and sinister innuendo. Truscott's shouting match with Dennis at the end of Act 1 is the show's strongest scene.

Like Benny Hill, Orton also had a thing for big-breasted nurses, and the one in Loot is named Fay. Renee Penegor plays her with a crisp, correct Scots accent, smiling her way through the various lapses in pre-funeral etiquette. ("I'm a woman!" she tells Truscott tartly, to no particular point. "Only half the population can say that without contradiction.") Fay was hired to care for Mrs. McLeavy, but it's clear from the start that she's killed the woman. Her motivation? Well, loot: She wants to marry Mr. McLeavy, who's rich. Penegor finds a middle ground between farce and quiet Scottish charm.

The one awkward performance comes from Alex Lopez, the lighting designer, who acts for the first time in Loot and still has room to grow. Fortunately, he plays a surly police officer, so his lines are kept to a minimum. Otherwise the show is hard to quibble with; it has sharp costumes by Valera Coble and an appropriately fake-looking dummy (for Mrs. McLeavy) by Trick Redman. But something's still missing. Maybe only a British cast can play Orton with just the right high-octane savagery. Loot is about keeping up appearances; it needs actors who can be ferocious and hypocritically polite at the same time. Americans as a breed may be too earnest. In 1999 Reid Davis directed another play, Christmas on Mars, that came closer to nailing a maniacal tone, but it was written by an American, Harry Kondoleon, and in America we simply have a different idiom for losing our minds.


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