Shattered Globe Theatre

A kind of theatrical entropy, a barely controlled chaos, informs Joe Orton’s farces: the thrill of watching comes from our fear that it will all collapse and our amazement when it doesn’t. (And that’s where the difficulty for the actor comes in: the comic rhythms can’t anticipate the results.) Orton’s most demanding comedy, physically and histrionically, is Loot, which if successful reduces murder to a sick joke, a corpse to a prop, and audiences to quivering Jell-O.

Nurse Fay has just bumped off yet another patient in order to acquire the woman’s well-heeled husband, McLeavy: she’d like him to become her sixth mate, the first five having died under suspicious circumstances. Then McLeavy’s son Hal bursts in with Dennis; they’ve just pulled off a bank heist, and frantically hide the loot in the coffin, moving Hal’s dead mother to a broom closet. (For further shock effect, Orton throws in the mother’s dentures, her false eye, and a casket full of vital organs.) Naturally the gold-digging nurse and money-mad Hal strike a compromise, and meanwhile Dennis is struck with love for Fay, adding a marriage proposal to the dirty deal. Completing the menagerie is Detective Truscott, a very thick dick who’s as predatory as he is ignorant.

Using his trademark topsy-turvy, irreverent approach and gallows humor, Orton takes countless potshots at sacred cows–especially the police and the Catholic church–and reverses all our rational expectations. The elaborately corrupt detective, for instance, seethes with the self-pity of an unctuous bureaucrat: “How dare you involve me in a situation,” he says to Hal, “for which no memo has been issued?” Here scoundrels succeed despite their awesome stupidity, and the one innocent character gets dragged off to jail.

Orton’s script is all cut from the same comic cloth; if it fails in part, it fails as a whole. It’s not just that Shattered Globe Theatre’s revival isn’t funny–it makes you wonder if the play is. Certainly these perspiring actors prove that farce is hard work–and it doesn’t help that here the two acts have been fused into one. But hard work isn’t enough. Material that should be at least a laugh a minute just seems irritating, and characters who should be zany come off as crude and dumb.

Roger Smart’s staging suffers from uneven accents and a rushed velocity, and Shattered Globe’s small space fairly pushes the actors’ shenanigans in our faces. We end up too close for comic comfort, not only deprived of the detachment comedy requires but almost threatened by the intimate mayhem.

Yet what ultimately does in this Loot is that it isn’t grounded in the characters and their situation. The pell-mell pacing means that no one registers as more than a tool of the plot; and though Linda Reiter is wonderfully impassive as the much-abused corpse, Smart’s six speaking actors seem far more concerned with their cues and props and not bumping into the audience than with the eccentricities that might have defined their caricatures. The spirit is willing, but the psychology is weak.

The best of the bunch is Martin Aistrope’s Truscott, a gleeful rascal who exudes delight in abusing his power. Brian Pudil is equally willing to run risks, playing greedy Dennis as if he really didn’t know the outcome. As Fay, Joan Quinlan must get beyond the obvious sex-symbol business to convey this brittle killer’s fear of being found out and delight in deception–or indeed anything beyond the passive performance Quinlan delivers. Leo Harmon plays McLeavy with only half the insufferable priggishness required, and Steve Key as Hal mugs more than he acts; both leave the verbal humor undisturbed by laughs.

Though Elizabeth McGeehan’s wraparound set immerses us in the McLeavy drawing room from the instant we enter the theater, it also scatters the actors: the characters are often so widely separated it’s hard to watch their reactions to one another–always half the humor in a comedy of contradictions.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Smart.