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Lost in Translation
By Kathryn Ceceri

By Joe Orton, directed by Graeme McKenna
Curtain Call Theater, through May 8

Any play can have a bad night. When the rhythm is off—when the audience takes one beat too many to get the joke, or worse yet, isn’t sure it’s OK to laugh—everything can fall apart. Loot is a very strange comedy, one that owes its popularity to its tastelessness and shock value. That alone is enough to make it a tough sell. On the night I saw it last week at the Curtain Call Theater, not even director Graeme McKenna’s updating and Americanization of Joe Orton’s biting British humor could help the cast find its groove or coax the audience over the hump from nervous titter to outright guffaw. But whether that’s McKenna’s fault, or just lack of chemistry between cast and audience, is hard to say.

The openly gay Orton was a bit of a thug, a semi-anarchist who spent time in jail with his collaborator and lover, Kenneth Halliwell, for pasting outrageous images into library books. He was eventually murdered by Halliwell at the peak of his career, at age 34. Orton loved to shock: Among the work he left behind was a never-produced screenplay for the Beatles called Prick Up Your Ears, a play on words on several levels, “ears” being an anagram. (Prick Up Your Ears is also the title both of a 1978 biography and a 1987 biopic, which revived his fame for later generations.)

Loot’s absurdist worldview is like a Monty Python routine pushed beyond funny to the edge of cruel. A comely blonde nurse, played with cool allure by Amy Lane, prepares her late employer’s befuddled husband (Phil Sheehan) for the dead woman’s funeral, and not coincidentally for a quick remarriage to the nurse herself. Moving around an eye-catching set by Charles Steckler—on which are shellacked (crazy-person style, à la Orton’s own décor) front- page headlines about aliens and Andy Warhol, topped by multiple framed pictures of the Pope—Lane’s nurse can’t help pointing out how the dead woman’s faults stem from her not being Catholic. It’s a bit of sectarian banter that, like the throwaway lines about priests and altar boys, garnered only an embarrassed peep from the audience.

Nor did gasps and squeals greet the entrance of the couple’s son Hal, a stupid youth involved with the black-leather-clad undertaker Dennis, as he stepped from the mysteriously locked closet. We know Timothy Leonard’s Hal is stupid because he says each word slowly and distinctly; by contrast, Kris Anderson as greasy, sleazy Dennis plays stupid much more smartly and convincingly. Dennis and Hal, we find out, have spent the night burrowing through from the mortuary into the bank next door, and as loot and corpse get roughly shifted from closet to coffin and back again, Loot shifts gears from offensive diatribe to simple gruesome slapstick. Meanwhile, the widower wanders in and out, confusingly clueless.

If anything saved the evening, it was the arrival of a tall, authoritative man from the Department of Water and Power—one part Sherlock Holmes, one part Joe Friday, and one part Ministry of Silly Walks. With his deadpan delivery and insistence that he was indeed from the DWP (and not, despite the logo on baseball cap and bomber jacket, from the FBI), Gregor Wynnyczuk’s public servant gave the audience the relief it craved: something safe to laugh at.

Having heard that the opening night’s audience fell right into Loot’s brand of insanity, I’d like to give Curtain Call the benefit of the doubt. Saturday’s missed cues, stepped-on lines and generally out-of-sync delivery could certainly be a reflection of audience reluctance to accept Orton on his own terms. That the ensemble had so much trouble getting back on its feet, though, might also be a sign that director McKenna needed to work harder on his cast’s comedic timing. With several talented players on board and plenty of opportunity for slapstick, Loot was definitely not the rich haul it could have been.

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