note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi
McLeavy … Hugh Metzler
Fay … Melissa Sine
Hal … Brian Sensale
Dennis … Mark Morrison
Truscott … Shawn Maguire
Meadows … John Pease
British Newscasters … Marianne Uttam; Nathan Meyers
Excerpts from letters to the London Times; reprinted in The Oxford Book of Death:
… As I approach my three score years and ten, would it not be a good investment to buy my coffin now? Yours faithfully, Elisabeth Goodwin.
Sir, An excellent suggestion has been made by Mrs. Goodwin in her letter today (January 28) that older people should buy their coffins now, a practice incidentally followed by many Chinese for centuries. The chief difficulty, however, would be one of storage in these days of many flat-dwellers. Would my visitors be elated or depressed, I wonder, by the sight of a coffin propped up in a small entrance hall? Yours faithfully, Margaret I. Killery.
Sir, If nothing else the British are innovators. Mrs. Killery (January 30) need have no fear that the coffin propped up in the entrance hall would cause concern, for the convertible coffin poses only a passing challenge to our national ingenuity. From cocktail cabinet to cloak cupboard, the range is infinite…. Yours faithfully, Patrick H. Kemp.
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(If these excerpts make you blink and tickle you at the same time, you are ready for the world of Joe Orton. --- C.R.)
For a few weekends, the Quannapowitt Players in Reading got the jump on the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston; their delightful production of Joe Orton’s black comedy LOOT preceded the Old Girl’s upcoming production of Mr. Orton’s WHAT THE BUTLER SAW I saw (and was disappointed by) the acclaimed 1986 Broadway revival of LOOT (it originally failed in 1968 after being an award-winning hit in London); the QP production surpassed it in light years.
LOOT comes in between Mr. Orton’s two other properly absurd/absurdly proper masterpieces: the naturalistic ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE (so indebted to Harold Pinter’s style) and BUTLER’s out-and-out romp: a respectable middle-class woman has died and is laid out in her coffin, attended by her grieving husband McLeavy and her not-so-grieving nurse Fay, who plans to make McLeavy her own (eighth) husband as soon as possible. A bank robbery has taken place in the neighborhood, committed, not surprisingly, by McLeavy’s immoral son Hal and his mate Dennis who works as the undertaker’s assistant. Knowing that a brutal, corrupt inspector named Truscott is on their trail, the lads need a place to stash the loot --- their actions, which set the plot in motion, will make you blink and tickle you at the same time (Mr. Orton’s genius lay in his matter-of-fact way of throwing open our thought-cupboards: deep down, we want to see idols smashed; sacred cows punctured; and institutions --- like the woman in her coffin --- stood on their heads). The Broadway revival camped it up, horribly (its Fay closed a dresser drawer with a swing of her hips, for example) and its trying to be oh-so shocking made Mr. Orton’s blackness seem tame, especially after years of Monty Python’s cheery anarchy (so indebted to the man) and the Royal Family scandals --- little seems sacred, anymore. The QP production worked beautifully: director Donna Corbett nailed down the tea-cozy details of everyday British life as securely as that coffin lid; in other words, she reapplied a layer of normalcy to have something to rip open again when the characters’ real motives swam up to the surface. Though she has not read John Lahr’s excellent biography of Mr. Orton, Ms. Corbett, calm and clear-eyed, steered her droll ensemble through these dark, hilarious waters as if guided by the playwright’s own (quoted) words, “If you’re absolutely practical --- and I hope I am --- a coffin is only a box.” This detachment --- that here is a box where things are put in or taken out --- is the heartbeat of Mr. Orton’s sensibility, that the society he knew (the 1960s) had grown so apathetic to violence and outrage that a woman’s remains could indeed be passed around “like nuts at Christmas” with poker-faced decorum. (A priceless moment: Dennis tried to close the coffin lid but the corpse’s head prevented it; one good thump, and the lid lay flat.)
Melissa Sine was the deadly, and deadly attractive, Fay. I first saw Ms. Sine as Judith in the Vokes Theatre’s production of THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE, where she slowly evolved into giving a performance; if the Shavian exchanges held her back, the Ortonesque quips unleashed her and she effortlessly prowled and pounced, even when standing stock still; she has the fire-beneath-the-ice quality that Harold Pinter also calls for and any company looking to cast THE HOMECOMING should keep Ms. Sine in mind for Ruth (“If you take the glass … I’ll take you.”). Brian Sensale and Mark Morrison made a wonderfully contrasted pair of hoods, with Mr. Sensale’s Hal as aloof as a weathervane turning this way and that yet unable to tell a lie when cornered, and Mr. Morrison’s thick Dennis betraying a Lost Boy’s innocence; their ambiguous relationship was suggested with just enough touching and inflections to keep the audience guessing. As Truscott, Mr. Orton’s send-up of the inspector who solves mysteries by single-handed deductions, Shawn Maguire was a reeling, talkative shark, and though John Pease spoke little as Meadows, the script gave him a bit of shtick with Fay that always gets a laugh. The production’s glory was Hugh Metzler’s McLeavy. The Broadway revival’s widower was as nutty as everyone else; as a result, the production lacked a moral center. Here, Mr. Metzler grounded the play by being the one decent soul onstage, comic in his tirades, but touching in his inability to accept what a cold, cruel place the world has become. When this McLeavy was hauled off to prison, and possibly to his murder, the sun sank a bit lower on English soil.
The production had its blemishes: the corpse looked like anything but, especially in transit, and the occasional burst of 60s pop music distracted rather than illuminated --- otherwise, hosannas, all around, for a production that was splendid in life and will be fondly remembered in memoriam.