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Living with the law: (l-r) Overby and Keating in WTF’s Loot.

Getting Away With It
By Ralph Hammann

Loot
By Joe Orton, directed by John Tillinger

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through July 28

I’m sure it is unintentional, but the unprecedented presentation of three successive comedies at the Williamstown Theatre Festival has a progressive stylistic development. The nostalgic romance and sweet shenanigans of the season’s opener, Where’s Charley?, gave way to the sporadically sharp satire of Once in a Lifetime, which reached its apotheosis in finding dark glee in a character’s nervous breakdown. Matters have darkened considerably in the present offering, a black comedy by Joe Orton. In his brief career, Orton found satisfaction in smilingly savage attacks on society’s hypocritical, self-important and corrupt institutions, theologies, mores, politics, organizations and bureaucracies.

Orton left no stone unturned and hurled enough rocks at sacred cows to curdle their milk. A number of the bovines kicked harshly at Orton as he niggled their udders and caused them and the censor-morons and their minions to blindly stampede.

Loot infuriated some with its satiric stabs at the Catholic church and the London constabulary, and it was censured by the Lord Chamberlain. Orton takes particular aim at the law, as represented by Inspector Truscott, a brash, duplicitous, brutal and corrupt official who fancies himself a modern Sherlock Holmes. Truscott is on the trail of money stolen from a bank by thieves who burrowed in through the coffin-storage room of the next-door funeral parlor. The loot ends up in the parlor armoire of Mr. McLeavy, whose deceased wife lies in a coffin several feet away. Unbeknownst to McLeavy, his son, Hal, and the driver of the funeral home’s hearse, Dennis, are in cahoots regarding the loot.

Wanting some loot of her own is the late wife’s nurse, Fay, who has married and murdered seven husbands for the inheritance and now has her sights set on McLeavy.

Excepting McLeavy, the characters are a thoroughly selfish and hypocritical lot, and the sanctimonious McLeavy is not above reproach himself, particularly when expressing his feelings on his not-so- dearly-departed wife. None encourages empathy, but they are entertaining in their greed, insipidity and stupidity.

The challenge for actors is to move the material at the speed of farce while maintaining a necessary degree of believability in the grotesquely heightened circumstances. It’s a challenge in style and language that few comic writers save Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward and Harold Pinter (all British, like Orton) present. Sentence meanings get twisted, and there is a continual friction between banality and outrageousness. Thus, the increasing bizarreness of Loot’s low humor is always tempered with wit.

As the play’s most witless character, McLeavy, Charles Keating provides a sublimely funny performance and is most at home with Orton’s bent humor. Forever on the brink of collapsing inward under the incomprehensibility of a worsening situation, Keating is enormously enjoyable in his portrayal of a befuddled, weary and woebegone near-innocent surrounded by astoundingly immoral characters.

Kellie Overby is upright, forthright and oddly enticing as the nurse with predatory bedside manners. Austin Lysy has less demanded of him, but is equal to the challenge as Dennis. As Hal, Matt McGrath is good, especially so when acting stupid.

Physically, Jeffrey Jones seems well cast as Truscott, but he periodically struggles with lines and seems ill at ease as he sweats through long speeches more than Truscott sweats confessions out of his suspects. Arguably the central character in the play, Truscott must drive the action. Jones seems more intent on keeping up with it.

Still, Orton’s refreshing voice does emerge, and even if he has been robbed of some of his humor, there’s probably enough loot left to satisfy.

Give ’Em the Business

George M!
Music and lyrics by George M. Cohan with revisions by Mary Cohan, book by Michael Stewart and John and Fran Pascall, musical direction by Tim Nelson, choreographed by John L. Wescott, directed by Steven Earl-Edwards

Park Playhouse Inc., through Aug. 18

There is a sublime moment in Act I of the Park Playhouse’s production of George M!, the 1968 musical-biography of George M. Cohan, the entertainment giant who brought the musical to Broadway with his outsized persona and head for business. The 50-minute first act covers Cohan’s birth in Providence, R.I., his life on the vaudeville circuit in little towns across America, and his first attempt to crack Broadway with a musical that he wrote, directed and starred in, Little Johnny Jones. Cohan’s relentless driving force is the desire to make money. He struts and frets through venue after venue, always pushing to get more money, and he alienates producer after producer, performer after performer. Finally, after the tryout for Little Johnny Jones is enthusiastically received, Cohan shows a little heart to a stagehand who tries to buck the suddenly unsure Cohan, who laments privately, “But those are friends out there. They’ll cheer no matter what. How do you know you’re any good?”

The first of act of George M! is 50-minutes of worrying about the money set to song and dance, followed by the very same existentialist question that hangs over the Park Playhouse itself year after year.

George M! is the best production that Park Playhouse Inc. has put out in years; it is also the shortest. This is not a coincidence. The first act is 50 minutes long, the second act is 45, and the intermission, with its usual shilling for money to keep up “Broadway-caliber free shows,” is 35 minutes long. When almost as much time is spent asking for money as performing onstage, questions about the priorities should be raised.

This musical does fit Park Playhouse perfectly. The set is three stories of bare metal scaffolding stretched across the stage. There are white globe footlights downstage, as if Home Depot’s home-lighting accessories department were the sponsor. The pit band sits above the stage in a band shell, visible except when a huge plywood American flag creaks across the stage, unfurling and furling in herky-jerky motion. The costuming is simple but effective, keeping the focus on the performers, and each scene is topped off with the whitest of smiles. The simple but colorful costuming helps to set off the smiles, even if it does little to set time or place.

More attention seems to have been paid in listing the various sponsors and the amount of money each paid; they are listed on large, colorfully painted wood panels immediately to the left and right of the stage—which is, perhaps, appropriate for a show about the grandfather of show business. The cast, especially Brad Bradley as the title character, strive mightily to please friends out there with such friendpleasers as “Give My Regards to Broadway” (the Act I closer), “Over There,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag”—all of which would have been crowdpleasers in Joel Grey’s hands, the title-role originator in the 1968 production.

The money-obsessed George M. Cohan might have been pleased with the tributes paid to sponsors, but he would have put a little more time, effort and bucks into the show itself and a little less to the businesses.

—James Yeara


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