backstage (2006-07)

Black Comedy at the Black Box

The Actors Co-op presents Joe Orton’s Loot

by George Logan

Surely Martha Stewart would have a solution to this dilemma. When you’re trying to hide a whole lot of stolen money and your mother’s corpse, and all you have is one oblong box, what can you do?

Loot , the current show at the Black Box, is a play about a box, one that’s not quite big enough for a dead woman and the cache from her son’s bank robbery.

The Black Box is the home theater of the estimable Actors Co-op. The director of Loot , though, is young thespian Joseph Beuerlein, a recent grad of UT’s theater department who has gotten more exercise as an actor, but has directed a couple of plays at UT and with the Oak Ridge Playhouse.

The play is one of the best known works by Joe Orton, the Brit playwright who was a punk before his time, shocking audiences of the 1960s with his black farces that spared no scruples. His wit has an inside-out perversity comparable to that of Oscar Wilde, but overlaid with manic absurdist comedy along the lines of Monte Python, or perhaps the Marx Brother freed from the restrictions of the Hays Act. (Orton’s unbridled life and violent death are the subject of the 1987 Gary Oldman movie Prick Up Your Ears .)

Loot opens in a middle-class English home, as timid widower McLeavey (“I like to be of assistance to authority”) played by veteran actor Ben Harville, is a little discomfited by the fact that his late wife’s young nurse, Fay, played by Sarah Lafore, seems to be proposing marriage. His bratty, irreverent son Hal and his friend Dennis appear to be hiding something.

Nolan Hatley and Doug Jennings are the amoral bankrobbers, who may remind you of the stylish sociopaths in A Clockwork Orange . Even while flirting with Fay, and who hint that their relationship may be more than collegial. They seem the embodiment of Orton himself.

Just as we’re wondering how this script would play straight—the portrayals all seem just a little over the top, McLeavey too pitiful, Hal and Dennis too brash, Fay too wicked—in rolls Buddy Lucas as Truscott, the detective who swears he’s with the water board, and all bets are off. He overtops them all with what seems at first a jarringly cartoonish portrayal of the Clousseau-like detective, his broad, eye-rolling leer seeming calculated to amuse children at the circus.

The production flirts with incoherence, as if it’s an assembly of good parts swiped from other productions. The first act is at least entertaining. The second act is hilarious, largely because Lucas convinces us that when you’re insane, it’s perfectly acceptable to be over the top. In fact, it can be, at moments, brilliant.

“I had a checkup yesterday,” he says, “and the doctor assured me I was quite sane.” It may be the funniest protestation ever made on a stage.

Though we never see her except as a fabric-wrapped “tailor’s dummy,” death becomes Mrs. McLeavey, who just grows funnier as she decomposes, even as she suffers the loss of several of her internal organs, and her false eyes are being “passed around like nuts at Christmas.”

With his script, Orton ridicules not only middle-class conventions, but some absurd natural realities that have no decent or reasonable response. Death, and the fact that even the most elegant dead people tend to leave behind ungainly bags of flesh and bones, are realities that no society has ever learned to deal with gracefully. Mrs. McLeavey is dead and in the way. It’s a universal but absurd predicament, and, to Orton, one that merits ridicule. 

The production has a couple of minor scrapes audiences may notice. One has to do with props. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an organ “casket” outside of Egyptian exhibits, and don’t know how big they’re supposed to be. But the fact that the money that won’t fit around a body in a coffin yet somehow does fit in a small organ “casket” hardly bigger than a cigar box is one of those nagging details that detracts from the dark hilarity.

Hal and Dennis have perfectly snotty working-class cockney accents, but you wonder where they found them; Hal’s father, a Catholic who’s not a working-class sort, and comfortably well-off, doesn’t.

But you don’t really need to think about that stuff to enjoy the show.

The Homberg Place area has potential to be a second downtown, especially on a weekend evening. It’s possible, as I learned recently, to eat a nice dinner, browse at a bookstore or two, buy a bottle of wine, and attend a play, all without even moving the car.

Who: Actors Co-op