with the law: (l-r) Overby and Keating in WTFs Loot.
Away With It
Joe Orton, directed by John Tillinger
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown,
Mass., through July 28
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
’Em the Business
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.
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.