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Talent put into ‘Loot’ doesn’t pay off

By John Angell Grant Daily Planet correspondent
Wednesday August 01, 2001

English playwright Joe Orton lived fast and died young. Beaten to death with a hammer in 1967 at age 34 by his longtime gay lover, he left behind a small body of work, including “Loot” (1965) and the posthumously produced “What the Butler Saw” (1969). 

Orton’s reputation has flourished since his death, due in large part to the 1978 biography “Prick Up Your Ears” by New Yorker theater writer John Lahr, and the subsequent movie based on that book a decade later starring Gary Oldman as Orton. 

Still, for me, the problem of the plays remains. I have never seen a great production of an Orton play. 

Berkeley’s talented Shotgun Players are the latest to give it a go. The company is currently running a thoughtful and meticulously staged production of “Loot” at LaVal’s Subterranean on the Northside. 

“Loot” is an absurdist, high-speed, sex-and-death farce, set in an English lower-middle-class family living room. Here patriarch MacLeavy (Greg Lucey) mourns the passing of his wife, who rests for much of the play in an open coffin in the center of the room. 

With a funeral imminent, the MacLeavy’s gay son Hal (Andy Alabran) appears to have robbed a bank with his sleazy bisexual chum Dennis (Danny Wolohan). Unexpectedly, the deceased woman’s nurse (Renee Penegor) morphs into a voracious, gold-digging sexual predator, and before long a mysterious water board inspector (Jonathan Gonzalez) arrives with pipe and magnifying glass to conduct an investigation. 

All farcical hell breaks loose. It’s a two-hour round-robin of hiding the bank loot and hiding the corpse. 

The acting in this production is super. Director Reid Davis has elicited fascinating performances from his entire cast.  

Lucey is comically woe-bestruck as the long-suffering, put-upon, newly widowed MacLeavy, the most real character in a world of otherwise complete zaniness. Renee Penegor is enticing and elusive as the pornographic, puritanical, hooker/nurse, married seven times in ten years, and looking for more. 

Andy Alabran is fascinating as hypersexual, simpleton son Hal, filled with dreams of opening his own brothel, and crazed with the hots for his chum Dennis. Alabran hypnotically twists his face and sucks his lips when he has to think. 

Danny Wolohan is also mesmerizing as swashbuckling bisexual undertaker’s assistant Dennis, enthusiastically scanning the room for money or tail. 

But the problem is that these great performances add up to less than the sum of their parts. And I think the basic challenge lies in the severe difficulty of staging Orton’s script, which tends to be cartoony and one-dimensional. 

All of the characters, for example, speak in the same voice. And the communications they make to each other are not thoughtful, character-based expressions, but rather jocular, nonsensical verbal gags of the moment. “Loot” feels like a play written on speed, without the human emotional connections. After two hours, you’re exhausted. 

To help counterbalance the characters’ one-dimensionality, director Davis and his cast have obviously put a lot of work into creating deeper people with backgrounds, histories, motivations, mysterious secret lives and subtexts. This work has paid off and given the play’s characters a fascinating richness, making them interesting people. 

There is a lot going on for the actors. They have wonderful moments during their non-speaking times on stage, communicating by eye contact or facial expression, or scheming internally. 

But, the production just isn’t that funny. “Loot” is supposed to be a farce, but the night I attended, the laughs were few and far between. Despite lots of effort to create a slapstick chaos, the show is missing the sort of basic laughs that, say, Laurel and Hardy get when they start hitting each other with their hats. 

Without that, the silly story just doesn’t carry enough weight for the play not to be funny. In the final analysis, “Loot” is dated. 

When first produced in 1965, “Loot” broke a lot of taboos. It made fun of religion, the law, marriage and middle-class sexual rules. From that iconoclasm the play earned its reputation for shock value. 

But now it’s 36 years later, and “Loot’s” bawdy religious satire, sexual backroom hanky-panky between boys and jokes about necrophilia just don’t offend a more jaded modern audience the way they once did. 

Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for “American Theatre,” “Backstage West,” “Callboard,” and other publications. E-mail him at