Murder Most Mild 


A n open casket. A cupboard stuffed with the corpse of the dearly departed Mrs. McLeavy. A swaggering, double-talking police inspector with the world's thinnest cover story. A foggy widower trying blearily to focus on a villainous gold-digger disguised as a super-religious nurse. Two completely inept bank robbers.

The drawing room gets cramped fast in Joe Orton's Loot, which might be the love child of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, if they'd been watching Quadrophenia with their pal George Orwell while taking plenty of stolen blue pills. With its physicality, witty dialogue, and total lack of respect for any institution, Loot is a good play for the Shotgunners to stage in their old stamping ground, the slightly dank and claustrophobic La Val's Subterranean, and while there are some definite weak spots, they mostly carry it off with aplomb.

Orton clearly didn't think much of government or religion, and he used Loot to systematically skewer both. It's not surprising that a man who was arrested for defacing library books would create a character like Jim Truscott, "Truscott of the Yard" (played here to brain-twisting perfection by Jonathan Gonzalez), who throws the whole McLeavy household into a panic with his arrival to "check the water supply" and insistence that the Metropolitan Water Board can, in fact, arrest citizens at its discretion. "This is a free country," Mr. McLeavy keeps protesting, but in Orton's Britain, the Man can come and take you away whenever he pleases, and you have no recourse. Religion and respect for the dead fare no better under Orton's pen: Seductively vicious Nurse Fay is bright, chipper, and ruthless in Shotgun newcomer Renee Penegor's hands, alternately questioning her dead patient's religious devotion while raiding the woman's closets (she'll take the dresses, but the underwear doesn't fit). The departed's son Harold is a special target of Fay's ire, who thinks he's going about his loss in the wrong spirit -- "I'm not in favor of private grief," she exclaims. "Mourn in public or not at all." In Orton's world, only the honest are punished -- Greg Lucey, as the widower McLeavy, spends most of the play trying to understand what's going on around him, remain an upstanding citizen, and cooperate with authority -- so of course he gets it in the neck. Although an early monologue of McLeavy's could have used more vocal variety, Lucey does a solid job as a sheep among wolves -- by turns irascible, cowering, and indignant, he gains the audience's sympathy for the sucker he will turn out to be.

Sexually fluid Harold, who might be Orton himself, has worries beyond whether his vacillating father is going to make Fay his evil stepmother. He and his boyfriend Dennis, the undertaker's son, know more than law-abiding citizens should about a certain recent bank robbery, and it's taking everything he has to stay cool until they can get out of town -- an exit hampered by his mother's corpse and the troublesome Truscott.

The Shotgunners may very well have chosen Loot so they could continue to abuse poor Andy Alabran, who last year let himself be undressed and torn to shreds by crazed women (in The Bacchae). This time out, he just gets beaten and thrown around, all with his usual grace and a fair bit of wide-eyed paranoia. Alabran, surprisingly, did not have his accent nailed down in the performance I saw, but what he lacked in that department he made up for in sheer physical derring-do; even when only his eyebrows are free to act, they do so with style. Harold makes a lousy criminal -- compared to the sociopaths Alabran often tackles for the Shotgunners, Harold is a lightweight. He may be amoral, he may not care a whit that his mother is dead under suspicious circumstances (trying to calm his father, he remarks, "You've lost nothing. You began the day with a dead wife, you ended the day with a dead wife") but he's also a good Catholic, and is hopeless as a liar. Which gets him into plenty of trouble with Dennis (the totally believable, gum-cracking Danny Wolohan), his much-smarter mate, who fears (rightly) that Harold is going to reveal their crime to the law. "I don't want to come back and find that you've been telling the truth all afternoon," Dennis warns Harold as he leaves to take McLeavy and the casket to the cemetery. But in one of the most enjoyable twists in Orton's play, Harold's flaw turns out to be that he cannot lie in response to a direct question. Watching Harold try to overcome this flaw -- and the other characters gleefully taking advantage of it -- is some of the biggest fun Loot offers.

It's ironic that considering the effort it took to get the money and keep it hidden, the conspirators have pretty pedestrian plans for it: Dennis wants a nest egg so he can marry Fay, and Harold has entrepreneurial ideas. Fay, of course, is a nasty piece of work ("There's something seriously wrong with your approach to marriage," Truscott observes dryly to her, after cataloging Fay's numerous and dead husbands), and Harold's business plan revolves around creating the ultimate, most diverse possible brothel ("I'll have a Catholic bird and a Protestant bird," he rhapsodizes, "and I'll have them together so they can see how the other side lives"). But Dennis and Harold are ultimately pretty ordinary working-class blokes, trying to live out their society's expectations -- do well for yourself and make a good match; it's just how they go about it that's a little unconventional, if not shocking. If they have to do some distasteful things, such as hiding the money in the casket or wrapping up the corpse and pretending that it's a dressmaker's dummy, well, that's just business. These choices are not nearly as outrageous as the behavior of the law or the demands of the church.

Unlike a Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes adventure featuring hidden clues and surprising denouements, in Loot the audience knows immediately what's been perpetrated and by whom. Orton identifies all the suspects early on, and then spends the rest of the play throwing whiplash-inducing plot twists in their path. The audience becomes co-conspirators with the characters. Everyone but the widower understands that Truscott isn't really with the Water Board, that Dennis and Harold are the bank robbers, and that Fay intends to marry McLeavy and then gently but firmly steer him under the wheels of a lorry at the first opportunity. Beneath the wild antics and breathlessness of the stage action, the question becomes, how will these amoral yet familiar characters get around the obstacles of law and family? How far will you go for loot? In the hands of director Reid Davis and his cast, the answer is, as far as you have to.

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