Black Humor Bonanza

Joe Orton’s plays aren’t done as much as they ought to be, so the Red Bull Theater’s staging of Loot, one of his three masterworks, is welcome indeed. The British playwright might today be renowned for a much larger oeuvre if he hadn’t been murdered by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, in 1967. John Lahr’s superb 1980 biography, Prick Up Your Ears, told the story of Orton’s life and death; in 1987 it was turned into a film, with a screenplay by Alan Bennett, that made stars of Gary Oldman as Orton and Alfred Molina as Halliwell.

Although Red Bull was started a decade ago to explore the vast repertory of Jacobean plays, in recent seasons the company has drifted away from its original focus, staging Jean Genet’s The Maids and August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death. The current mission, notes artistic director Jesse Berger in the program, is to present “great classic plays of heightened language.” That label encompasses Orton, whose epigrammatic dialogue can rival that of Oscar Wilde or Lewis Carroll in its nonsensical sense, as in this exchange between Fay, an attractive hired nurse, and Mr. McLeavy, whose wife has just died. McLeavy is extolling a planned floral tribute:

McLeavy: It will put Paradise to shame.
Fay: Have you ever seen Paradise?
McLeavy: Only in photographs.
Fay: Who took them?
McLeavy: Father Jellicoe. He’s a widely traveled man.

The loot of the title is from a bank robbery pulled off by McLeavy’s son, Hal (Nick Westrate), and his friend and possible lover Dennis (Ryan Garbayo), a mortician. They’ve made it look like Dennis’s funeral home was broken into by robbers at night and a tunnel dug to the bank next door to rob it. Now the police are investigating, and Hal and Dennis are trying to hide the money from Inspector Truscott, a notorious, brutal investigator who masquerades as a representative of the water board. The ruse allows Truscott to interrogate suspects and poke around homes without a warrant, because the water board doesn’t need a warrant. When Truscott arrives, refusing even to give his name, Mrs. McLeavy lies in an open coffin at home, awaiting last rites; Hal and Dennis are trying to abscond with the lucre; and Fay is planning to get McLeavy to propose to her. Pretty quickly the situation spirals into frantic farce, and the black humor just gets blacker.

Berger’s production has a lot going for it. Westrate and Garbayo are a fine, frenzied pair of criminals, and Rebecca Brooksher’s lethal, gold-digging Fay, though occasionally speaking hurriedly, makes a splendid femme fatale. It’s Jarlath Conroy, though, as the disconsolate, troubled Catholic widower, who makes his part a feast here. Whether he’s appalled to hear Fay’s report of his wife’s alleged religious lapses, or kowtowing to authority in any form, his McLeavy is a delight.

Orton always had a problem with both civil and religious authority. In the early 1960s, he and Halliwell went to prison for defacing library books. In Loot, he gets back at the police by creating Truscott, a great comic bully. Rocco Sisto as Truscott has the dominant role, but in an early preview seemed uncomfortable with his lines, and his timing was off; once he settles in, the production should be sharper. Orton had a classical sensibility and the ability to pile laugh upon laugh; a line like “the theft of a Pharaoh is something which hadn’t crossed my mind” requires precision delivery to garner all the laughs it deserves and yet set up the riotous payoff that follows.

If anything has dated, it’s Orton’s notion of bisexuality. Westrate and Garbayo are fine actors, and both inhabit middle-class characters convincingly, but neither manages to persuade one that there’s heat for each other that outweighs the women they talk about. Orton’s pre–gay liberation sensibility doesn’t provide them much help except to have Hal occasionally call Dennis “baby.” Hal plans to have a heterosexual brothel full of a variety of “birds,” and Dennis has fathered five children. Although Orton was operating under the constraints of strict British censorship, those facts muddy the sexual aspects of the story. Still, under Berger’s direction the farce plays swiftly, and the laughs are plentiful. They can only multiply as things smooth out.

Loot plays at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., through Feb. 9. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit redbulltheater.com. Regular tickets are $60; premium tickets are $75.

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