Farce has perennial popularity as a stage genre, and most playhouses come around to taking a whack at it, although you're more likely to see productions from audience-tested contemporaries like Larry Shue and Michael Frayn than pioneers like Georges Feydeau. Staging farce is more than a matter of who can slam doors the loudest and requires comic timing so tight that the margin of error is razor thin: I've seen far more misses than hits.
Actor's Express brings to its production of Loot plenty of ideas about the era of the play's conception -- London of the 1960s -- as well as the genre itself. But despite a game cast, Loot rarely achieves take-off.
We find McLeavey (Daniel Burnley), "the leading Catholic layman in a radius of 40 miles," grieving over the casket of his late wife. It's the day of the funeral, and the widower must contend with his faithful, randy Nurse Fay (Donna Wright) and his shiftless son Hal (Daniel Pettrow), neither of whom want to attend the ceremony.
Hal's plan to be a no-show has nothing to do with mourning his mother. He and his mate Dennis (Brit Whittle), a funeral parlor-employee, have nicked a small fortune from the bank next door to the mortician. The problem is making off with the money, with Dennis and Hal already under suspicion. They seize upon stowing the cash in the coffin, but what to do with the body?
Director K. Elizabeth Stevens emphasizes Dennis and Hal as a pair of groovy swingers in Nehru jackets, with Hal constantly combing his Beatlesesque haircut, while Dennis adjusts his ruffled cuffs. Alone and tasting triumph, they briefly do a little dance as the theater blares the opening chords of "In the White Room."
Their endeavor seems doomed from the outset, and the heist is further complicated by the snooping Truscott (Bill Murphey), who claims to be a simple representative of the Metropolitan Water Board, until he reveals himself as Truscott -- of the Yard! A pipe-chomping throwback to British drawing-room mysteries, Truscott suspects Fay of being a merry widow murderess and the two lads of pulling the bank job.
Orton's reputation as a playwright may have been conflated due to the tragic circumstances of his untimely death (call it the James Dean effect). His comedies show an undeniable flair for epigrams and paradoxes. But as in Loot and his best-known play What the Butler Saw , the dialogue can fall into lockstep patterns of set-up and punchline to the point where his jokes become utterly predictable: "The British police force used to be run by men of integrity." "That is a mistake which has been rectified."
Actor's Express is wise to treat the play as a period piece -- the set is surrounded by mutant paisleys -- but that can't compensate for its dated qualities. The hints at Hal's bisexuality will shock no one, and will any eyebrows be raised at the irreverent treatment of Catholics? Puncturing English propriety may still have relevance, but it hardly seems cutting edge. More interesting is Orton's satirical focus on Truscott, with his bald-faced abuses of authority, from concealing his identity to beating suspects. The finger-waggling Murphey proves especially zesty in the second act, although Truscott isn't really a multi-dimensioned character.
Of couse, farces are more about complication than characterization, and Stevens doesn't build up a full head of steam under the show. Perhaps the most amusingly paced moment was a rapid exchange between Murphey and Whittle, a la Abbot and Costello, as to whether or not bankrobbery is still illegal. (I attended the final performance before opening night, and it's possible the play has since built up to speed.) Much of the physical comedy -- involving dropped corpses, toilet seats and stray glass eyes -- doesn't have much punch.
The cast is mostly quite game, especially Wright's ability to be both deadpan and vampy and Pettrow's moments where he tries to overcome his compulsion to tell the truth. The set is cleverly designed to seem deliberately fake, like something you'd find on a "Monty Python" soundstage. These efforts notwithstanding, Loot affirms the suspicion that farce as a comic form is out of sync with our current, irony-laden times. But farce will endure, and those doors may slam again.
Loot plays through Dec. 23 at Actor's Express, King Plow Arts Center, 887 W. Marietta St., with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 7 p.m. Sun. (with 2 p.m. matinees Oct. 1 and 15). $20-25. 404-607-7469.
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