By Kay Kipling
When the late British playwright Joe Orton’s career began, back in the 1960s, the world had yet to see some of the absurd, sometimes rude humor it’s more familiar with now, thanks to years of Monty Python skits and Saturday Night Live episodes. Perhaps familiarity with the comic style Orton specialized in, with its jabs at authority and conventional moral behavior, may make his Loot (now onstage at the Cook Theatre in an FSU/Asolo Conservatory production) feel less outrageous than it did more than 40 years ago.
At least, that’s the effect it had on me; seeing Loot today, at least in this production, felt like watching an extended version of some of those old Python bits, especially with the entrance of a coveralled character who claims to be from the water board and asks a lot of nosy and ridiculous questions. For some, though, Orton’s digs at the not-so-sacred cows of the Catholic Church, funeral customs, the police force and other entities may still evoke shock.
Loot begins with a coffin dominating center stage in an appropriately modest, even shabby set by Chris McVicker. The coffin holds the corpse of the late Mrs. McLeavy, whose widower (Michael Frishman) appears to be the only one mourning her. She’s certainly not getting much respect from the husband-hunting nurse who tended her (Olivia Williamson) or her frequently in trouble son, Hal (Jory Murphy),and his undertaker assistant friend/insinuated lover, Dennis (Matthew Anderson). On the contrary: They see the coffin as the perfect place to store the money they’ve stolen from the bank next door (the loot of the title), carelessly slinging the wrapped-up body into a locked armoire instead.
The arrival of the bombastic water board worker (Brian Owen), who is actually (surprise!) a police inspector doesn’t necessarily mean justice will be done, however. Indeed, Hal and Dennis and the nurse (who’s already had seven husbands disappear under mysterious circumstances) just may get away with their crimes, since Orton wasn’t about to prop up the legal system that actually sent him to prison in his youth for “borrowing” and then altering library books with obscene covers.
It’s a promising enough setup for laughs, but Act I, at 70 minutes in length, takes too long to get to them, either through too much talk or faulty pacing or both. Act II moves along more swiftly and with better, sharper lines of satiric attack.
The cast is reasonably effective, under the direction of Jonathan Epstein. Williamson has the right air of self-absorption and sexuality (although it’s a bit much when another policeman, played by Paul Herbig, is supposed to fall at her feet instantly). Murphy and Anderson are convincing enough as a couple of layabouts willing to do anything for money. And Owen, as the police inspector who loves to hear himself talk, is frequently amusing in his obtuseness.
Overall, though, Loot doesn’t steal the laughter one wishes it did. The show continues through Jan. 19; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.