By David A. Rosenberg
If you’ve had enough roses, look to the thorns. Unless you’re squeamish about offending the police, the Catholic Church, undertakers, brothels and Mrs. Edna Welthorpe, race to Joe Orton’s “Loot” at the Westport Country Playhouse where you will be, in critic John Lahr’s phrase, “corrupted by pleasure.” As directed by David Kennedy with metronomic precision, a superlative cast of farceurs cooks up Oscar Wilde and Agatha Christie into a delectable comic broth.
Mrs. McLeavy is dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. There’s her coffin center stage to prove it, watched over by her grieving husband and her diabolical, rosary-praying nurse, Fay. The late Mrs. McLeavy’s son, Hal, conflicted about his mother’s demise, has been busy elsewhere. Robbing a bank, to be exact. Along with his chum and sometimes bedmate, Dennis, Hal has decided to hide the swag in mummy’s coffin, thus starting a swirling series of events involving Mrs. M’s corpse, a locked wardrobe, an inconvenient car accident and more red herrings than in Sweden.
Enter Truscott, who claims he’s from the Metropolitan Water Board, come to read the meter. In reality, he’s a detective sent to investigate the robbery and an authority figure of the kind that author Orton detested. Witness this exchange between Truscott and Mr. McLeavy, “who’s been kissed by the Pope” and is, not incidentally, the play’s one law-abiding character.
McLeavy: “The police are for the protection of ordinary people.”
Truscott: “I don’t know where you pick up these slogans, sir.”
Written as much in anger as humor, the play criticizes society by skewering conformity and championing rebelliousness. Since, at its end, comedy traditionally restores order to the universe with a wedding, “Loot” does its share, but in ways that might seem perverse. Here the “wedding” is a menage a trios.
“Loot” may be subversive but it’s also loopy, having fun with sacred cows. Mrs. McLeavy’s false teeth are clicked like castanets. Funerary wreaths are shaped like Bingo cards. A glass eye is mistaken for a marble.
If handled with knowing winks, the souffle would collapse immediately. Rather, like all farce, it must be taken seriously. The characters must believe in the mad events that upend logic.
Kennedy astutely directs his actors to play with utmost sincerity, while nailing every gag. David Manis (Truscott), Liv Rooth (Fay) and John Horton (McLeavy) are at the top of the list. Supporting them are Zach Wegner (Dennis), Devin Norik (Hal) and William Peden (Meadows, another cop).
Andrew Boyce’s setting, Matthew Richards’ lighting and Emily Rebholz’s costumes are likewise ultra realistic. In this ordinary house in an ordinary neighborhood, murder, desecration and robbery are quite at home.
It’s enough to send Mrs. Edna Welthorpe into a tizzy. Orton’s pseudonym, his own invention, is an upstanding, upright, uptight moralist given to writing complaining letters to the editor. In one missive, Orton, ever the trickster, has her call “Loot” a “piece of indecent tomfoolery” and a “travesty of the free society.” And so it is, to our delight.