by Joe Orton
American Repertory Theatre
After the challenge and excitement of Full Circle, which was running in repertory with Loot, and perhaps even more after the wonderful fun of Won't Pay, Won't Pay last fall, which was also directed by Andrei Belgrader and also starredThomas Derrah, perhaps we had excessive expectations for Loot.
Whatever the reason, the production was a disappointment; it simply wasn't funny, and it wasn't shocking or scandalous. Perhaps this has, as the Boston Globe reviewer suggested, something to do with the fact that we've become a whole lot more cynical (or, Joe Orton might suggest, realistic) since Loot scandalized the bourgeoisie back in 1966, but I don't think that was the main problem.
Two other problems seemed obvious from the word go: one clear one was the set. For reasons I can't imagine, the production used the entire width of the Loeb Center stage, arranging the McLeavy parlor right across it, as though it had been unpeeled like veneer. What this meant was that (a) the room seemed far more lavish and wealthy than it has in any production I've ever seen of the play (if the room is this wide, you thought, the house must be at least 5000 square feet: why are these people living in this elaborate mansion?), and (b) that people regularly spoke to each other from substantial distances apart, and had great distances to travel to get from, for instance, Mrs. McLeavy's coffin, downstage right, to the cupboard where the loot is and with which the body needs to be swapped. Moving Mrs. M back and forth became less funny and more laborious every time she went -- and the dummy which stood in for her became, with every move, more clearly a convenience rather than a joke.
Another clear problem was that it seemed that a decision had been made to follow Joe Orton's advice about playing the script straight, as though none of it were funny, and allowing the laughs to grow out of the situation. If that advice was sound in 1966 (and I doubt it) it surely isn't now: in order to be funny -- and in order to work -- now, Loot needs to be over-the-top, pell-mell bordering on farce, right on the brink of slapstick. It wasn't. I had assumed that Andrei Belgrader was capable of this, given the wonderful job of pushing Won't Pay over the top, and I can only conclude that it was a conscious decision to treat Orton's play as though it were an episode of The Young and the Restless.
That may be why Thomas Derrah seemed so wooden, so much less vibrant than he'd been in Won't Pay, where his ability to parody Ralph Kramden and Desi Arnaz and other caricatures of sitcoms seemed so palpable: here, his Hal is mechanical and distant, his sexuality not just ambivalent or indeterminate, but simply vague and undefined. Laurie Williams as Fay, the predatory nurse, was probably the most animated and engaged character on stage, but even she uttered her amazingly cynical (or realistic) takes on the world as though they were your maiden aunt giving advice about housekeeping. Theoretically, maybe that might be funny; in practice, we rarely laughed.
Alvin Epstein, as McLeavy, was stuck with what seemed, in this production, the role of being the hapless straight man, the victim of the practical jokes, when the jokes turned out not to be funny. His narrative of the accident on the way to the funeral in other productions of Loot I've seen has approached the hilarity of that English lecturer whose name I've blocked's narrative of the hod carrier's catastrophe, in which he applies for sick leave after a series of disastrous miscalculations involving getting a barrel full of bricks to the top of a building under construction. Here it simply fell flat. Yes, we said, it must have been awful. It didn't help, either, that although he came in after the accident bandaged and covered with blood, in the next scene (after the between-acts break) he comes back and nothing seems to have happened: the bandages seem to have disappeared and he's good as new. Yes, we said, it didn't seem so serious after all.
And Jeremy Geidt's Truscott, which I've seen played successfully as a kind of British (well, or not French, anyway, or at least not Peter Sellers) Inspector Clouseau (Truscott is in some ways the model for Tom Stoppard's Inspector Hound), was, in this production, just a kind of low-key Columbo -- and even Peter Falk tends to get more laughs. And Sean Dugan's Dennis didn't seem ever to achieve anything much other than the status Orton gave him, a dramatic device who needed to be onstage so that things could be explained.
Oddly, though the script seemed to be played straight, there were sight gags which seemed designed to compensate for the fact that there didn't seem to be many laughs in it; Truscott flashes us at the end, finally opening his trenchcoat to reveal a garter belt, and gobs of soapsuds descend from the flies during the bows -- perhaps to remind us of the soap-opera quality of the rest of the evening? It seemed a desperate attempt to get some kind of laugh out of a play which didn't afford many otherwise.
Is it possible that Loot is one of those scripts that's just terminally dated, that can't be pulled up into the oughts of this new millennium, because it's tied so permanently to attitudes of the middle third of the previous century? I hope not, but on the basis of this production, that's what I'd have to conclude.