We can’t accept the evidence of a ghost. The problems it poses would be insuperable.” There’s no ghost, but there is a load of equally questionable evidence, though hard to say what it could prove, in Joe Orton’s Loot, that catastrophically funny play now on stage at the Masquers Playhouse in Point Richmond.
Opening with an open casket and an ebullient and scheming nurse, Fay (Lyndsy Kail)—who changes garb from stark white to sleek black during the proceedings, from caretaker to mourner—Loot follows the wild misadventures of Fay, widower McLeavy (Peter Pinfield), sullen son Hal (Aaron Martinsen) and mortician’s assistant Dennis (Drew Ledbetter), dogged by Water Board Inspector Truscott (Jim Fye) and Constable Meadows (Matt Stevens), as a bank heist somehow collides with viewing and burial, leaving nothing and nobody unscathed.
The ridiculous becomes the absurd—or is it the other way around?—in a vertiginous tsunami of questions, answers, explanations, not all speaking to the same point. Somewhere along the way, it’s been said Orton played back the worst of middle-class cliches, upside-down, as dialogue.
Fay schemes to marry the bereaved McLeavy. Hal and Dennis, romantically attached, seek to conceal their ill-gotten gains from a heist. Truscott strolls through, protesting his authority’s but a fluid thing, a perambulating send-up of Chesterton or Priestley. Verbally—sometimes physically—the cast caroms off each other. Bank job or bank shot? Eight ball in the side pocket? Who’s keeping score?
As the plot thickens like gravy, reason becomes a device to comfort—or taunt—the more reasonable amid the splintering of sense: “You’ve lost nothing: you’ve begun the day with a dead wife, and you’ve ended it with a dead wife.”
There’s a certain amount of door and coffin-lid slamming, plus waltzing with a shrouded cadaver, but Orton isn’t Feydeau with macabre fixin’s. Here’s where most shows break down, since the doomed author—“Oscar Wilde of the Welfare State,” as director Jessica Holt refers to him—doesn’t offer up farce so much as ultra-farce, not burlesque but meta-burlesque, not camp but hyper-camp.
It takes titanic energy and cruel fortitude to keep up with the twists and turns of Orton’s simultaneous spinning and unraveling of plot.
Luckily, the cast is pretty funny, and three of the mainstays attack with appropriate demeanor, deadpan with high spirits, determined to see it through to the unlikely conclusion: Kail, Martinsen and Fye.
The direction stumbles a little, both by playing it as regular farce, and by allowing (or instructing) the actors to mug, slowing down the tempo, which ideally increases with every stumblingblock encountered. The mugging and posing is most damaging to Ledbetter; the second act commences with less energy than when the curtain’s first raised. Orton should defy entropy, not to mention fatigue, exhaustion.
The closest thing to this hybrid eccentric we’ve had in The States may be the burlesque melodramas of the ’20s-’30s, capped by Dracula, or the “absurdist” spoofs and “tragicomedies” of Orton’s own ’60s.
From a stray glass eye to a lurching coffin, Orton gleefully juggles his stock-in-trade, egging on the strange to pass judgment on the more ordinary: “I’m an honest man!” McLeavy protests. “You’ll have to mend your ways, then,” he’s admonished.
Greg Scharpen provides a well-wrought soundtrack of sorts, for something that is, in its own way, a live movie, but scattered across the cutting room floor.
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 26 and 2:30 p.m. Sundays (Aug.30, Sept. 13 and 20) at Masquers Playhouse, 105 Park Place, Point Richmond. $18. 232-4031. www.masquers.org.