Famous Door Theatre Company

at Jane Addams Center Hull House

On August 9, 1967, Kenneth Halliwell took a ball-peen hammer and killed his longtime lover and friend, Joe Orton, with nine whacks to the head. Then he killed himself. “If you read [Orton’s] diary,” Halliwell wrote in his suicide note, “all will be explained.” A gross overstatement if ever there was one. No amount of research or armchair psychologizing can ever really explain what finally triggered the unbalanced Halliwell or why it was that day he chose to end his decaying relationship with Orton.

To his credit, Peter Fieldson never delves into the whys of this horrific murder-suicide in his extremely dark comedy about Orton and Halliwell Black and Blue. Unfortunately, Fieldson also avoids the far easier whos, whats, and wheres of the case, with the result that only those audience members well acquainted with Orton and Halliwell’s story–recounted in John Lahr’s Prick Up Your Ears and a subsequent film adaptation–and with Orton’s work will be able to follow this fictional account of Halliwell’s disturbed mental state during his last minutes on earth.

In Fieldson’s play Halliwell is haunted by three ghosts–a young hood, a pompous detective, and a libidinous nurse–all of them strikingly similar to characters in Orton’s plays. The hood resembles the young toughs in The Ruffian on the Stair and Entertaining Mr. Sloan, while the detective and the nurse have been lifted right out of Loot. Over the course of the play each ghost finds a way to torture Halliwell, either directly (the youth teases and bullies him; the detective plays a sadistic game of cat and mouse with him) or indirectly (the nurse’s passive/aggressive bungling, including the old comedic chestnut of giving the wrong person a shot, helps turn Halliwell’s hallucination into an Orton-esque farce).

I suppose the idea is that Orton’s characters literally live on after him–and even avenge his death. Which is not a bad premise for a first-rate horror story. But Fieldson fell prey to his own cleverness.

Not content to merely tell a story he attempts to create postmodern art by turning every beat in the play into an opportunity to parody (or at least parrot) Orton’s plays. For example, the scene in which the punk forces his way into Halliwell and Orton’s flat echoes Wilson’s entrance in The Ruffian on the Stair. Both the youth and Wilson claim they’ve come about renting a room; both end up arguing with someone who denies there’s a room to rent. The pompous detective in Black and Blue, like the one in Loot, claims he’s from the “metropolitan water board.” There’s a lot of silly business with Orton’s body that parallels all the “What do we do with this dead body?” jokes in Orton’s play. Fieldson even peppers his play with references to Halliwell and Orton’s lives, most notably their mischievous defacement of library books (for which they ended up serving time).

Die-hard Orton fans may snicker at these in-jokes, but jokes don’t make up for Fieldson’s inability to tell a compelling story. If you know about Halliwell’s ignoble death, you spend the whole play waiting for the 22 Nembutals to do him in. If you don’t know that Halliwell committed suicide right after bludgeoning Orton, you probably can’t make any sense of Fieldson’s play. You’d be better off renting Prick Up Your Ears and be done with it. That would also spare you the sight of Marc Grapey’s excellent cast delivering the sort of stellar performances for which Famous Door is justly praised (Dan Rivkin in particular is amazing as Halliwell) but still failing to sell the show.