There are very few "outrageous" entertainments from the 1960's that have any sting left, and Joe Orton's black comedy "Loot" could easily be a period piece, one of those plays that were once important and are now only oddities. Part of the achievement in this bright new production, strikingly well-directed by Craig Lucas, is that it acknowledges that potential danger, and overcomes it by de-emphasizing the desire to shock, and riding high on the sheer wit and intelligence of the script. Mr. Lucas, the new Associate Artistic director at Intiman, and already celebrated as a brilliant playwright, shows with this production his enormous promise and competence as a director.
Of course, every director looks better if he puts together a first-rate cast, and that's certainly the case here. As the two young ruffians who decide to stash their stolen loot in Hal's poor mother's coffin, Daniel Eric Gold and Michael A. Newcomer are excellent. Mr. Gold, as Hal, is the perfect endearing, amoral innocent, incapable of lying, and thus utterly unequipped to survive in civilized society. He gives the role a bit of Stan Laurel, but mostly he just moves the plot along by doing the right thing, which means he simply doesn't understand how the game is played. As his punk-fashioned, erotically undefined, and ethically uncommitted boyfriend Dennis, Michael A. Newcomer has just the right blend of toughness and tenderness to be an Orton affecton. Both of these boys bring no peace whatsoever to the bereaved McLeavy (Sean G. Griffin), who manages his calamities with the steamed pudding equanimity of a steadfast, middle-class Briton. Of course, the crime must be investigated, and that brings forth all the power and idiocy of the establishment. The always entertaining R. Hamilton Wright has a great time with this ludicrous inspector who also has most of the play's most satiric lines. He may at times skirt the edges of over-playing, but this is a farce, and he energizes it by upholding all the rationality of its ridiculousness.
The most interesting casting, and in many ways the most interesting role, is played by the remarkable Nick Garrison, as the sexy and lethal young nurse, Fay. Casting the role to be played in drag could have been just a gimmick, but Mr. Garrison is always an actor first, and the fact that there's something unmistakably questionable about this woman is quickly subsumed in all the other elements of her duplicity. Again, the director's firm grasp on Orton's sensibility clearly understands that everything in this play is wrapped in artifice and contradiction, and that there's a general desire for subversion to anything related to gender, sexuality, morality or convention that makes this impersonation perfectly consistent. Ultimately, though, it is Mr. Garrison's ability to convince us of the verisimilitude of Fay, not of the gender-switch, that makes it work so well.
The physical production was beautiful, from the lovely set design by John McDermott, which wrapped the tidy interior of the home in a proper garden, with magnified lilacs through the window, and two-dimensional blossoms climbing up the wings. The costume design, by Frances Kenny was just right, and especially good for the put-together Miss Fay. Ben Stanton's lighting design was tasteful and restrained, with nice bits of otherworldly emphasis when revelatory monologues carried us to harsh secrets about shameful pasts. Deena Burke made sure all the dialect sounded easy and natural, and never drew attention to itself.
A quarter of the way into the show, I was really worried. It began with that mealy sort of mildly amusing, politely familiar manner of English drawing room comedy. When the corpse is first dumped upside down into the armoire so the money can be stuffed in the coffin, I realized how deliberate the director's handling was. What we were seeing was precisely what Joe Orton brought to the English comic stage. From then on, the comedy went off like firecrackers on a string. Nothing of that early mood, that easy assumption, was ever possible again, and that's what made Orton important, and what makes this production so fresh.
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