Loot at Arden Theatre Company
I say "must have been" because, based on the Arden Theatre's new production, one can only guess. Aside from a great comic performance by Anthony Lawton, the Arden's unevenly paced production doesn't have much to recommend it. Orton's humor still shines through at times, but this Loot seems disorganized - more like a diagram for what a great comedy should be than a truly entertaining evening.
Loot opens in the parlor of the elderly Mr. McLeavy as he prepares for his wife's funeral. While he is overcome with grief, it soon becomes apparent that no one else in his household is. His wife's nurse Kay seems crisp, efficient and proper at first, but she soon reveals that she has designs on McLeavy - or at least his money. She wants to make McLeavy her eighth husband and, figuring that his three-day mourning period has been sufficient, tries to intimidate him into proposing marriage. ("Use any form of proposal you like. Try to avoid abstract nouns.") Meanwhile, McLeavy's son Hal refuses to attend his mother's funeral, as he and his best mate Dennis need the time to figure out how to hide the money from the bank heist they just pulled off. Their solution: put the loot in Mrs. McLeavy's coffin, and store her body in the cupboard until they can sneak it out and dispose of it. Hot on their trail - well, lukewarm on their trail - is Truscott, who works for the Water Board - or does he? He snoops around the McLeavy home while making odd pronouncements about who may be behind the bank robbery ("He may be the stupidest criminal in England - unless he's the cleverest"). McLeavy takes it all in, growing more and more confused and outraged as the people around him grow more and more vicious and greedy ("This is God's judgment on me for marrying a Protestant!").
In case you haven't guessed, Loot is a farce. Orton used the play to make swipes at all sorts of stuffy institutions, from the police to the Catholic Church to the British sense of decorum. The jokes still seem relevant, and Orton's outrageous sense of humor still retains its subversive bite. But farce needs a fast pace and a consistent tone to work; without it, the Arden's Loot sometimes seems as lifeless as Mrs. McLeavy.
As Mr. McLeavy, the only sane character in the show, David Howey is an excellent straight man, underplaying his befuddlement beautifully. But Anthony Lawton steals the show with a brilliant performance as Truscott. Lawton's exaggerated style works perfectly; with every double-take, he shines as a sleuth who patterns himself on Sherlock Holmes (right down to the pipe) but is really more clueless than Clouseau.
When Howey and Lawton aren't onstage, unfortunately, the rest of the cast has a hard time getting laughs. As Kay, Kate Hampton is required to make a transition from cheerful caregiver to lecherous schemer, and doesn't quite pull it off. With her prim demeanor, her scandalous past seems unlikely, as does her ability to entice young men such as Dennis (played by the ineffective Chancellor Dean). As Hal, Tobias Segal barrels through some of Orton's best jokes, draining them of much of their sting. His low-key approach, coupled with wincing glances at the audience, is often painful to watch and drags down the show. And, since Hal, Kay and Dennis are the characters who set the plot in motion, it's distressing to see them drain the farcical elements from this farce.
The Arden has surrounded this cast with its usual top-notch production values; kudos should go especially to Bob Phillips' sets and Janus Stefanowicz' costumes. But under the lackadaisical direction of Douglas C. Wager, this production of Loot lacks the energy to do justice to a script that still has the power to entice, offend and delight a new generation of theatergoers.
Loot runs through October 20 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Post-show discussions are scheduled on Thursday, September 22; Sunday, October 2; Wednesday, October 12; and Sunday, October 16. Ticket prices range from $27 to $45 and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215.922.1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or in person at the box office.