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O.C. THEATER REVIEW : Orton's 'Loot' Lacks Voltage to Be Shock Therapy for '90s

September 27, 1993|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Farce can't get much blacker than Joe Orton's "Loot," which opened Saturday at South Coast Repertory in a revival on the Second Stage.

Mordant wisecracks aimed at every form of authority from the Pope to the police--not to mention the absurdities of a plot involving a defiled corpse and a bumbled bank robbery--are meant to shock the audience as much as to make it laugh.

At the end of the first act, for example, a deliciously nasty Scotland Yard detective warns his chief suspect: "If I ever hear you accuse the police of using violence on a prisoner in custody again, I'll take you down to the station and beat the eyes out of your head."

The irony is that real events have outstripped Orton's "comedy of horrors," as he once wanted to title this 27-year-old play. After Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots, a caustic line such as the detective's stirs self-conscious titters rather than subversive revelations.

And so, even with a production as finely cast, sharply acted and ably directed as this one, "Loot" has lost the essential power to shock. It seems forced, a relic of the '60s frequently trenchant in its parodistic wit but no match for actual history and only intermittently funny.

"Loot" is also a tricky farce to stage, given its very British antic style. Director Mark Rucker has managed adroitly, however, with an ensemble of actors who fit their roles exceptionally well. They negotiate the ridiculous and never make fools of themselves.

The play revolves around McLeavy (Art Koustik)--a Catholic widower whose devotion to the church is just barely exceeded by his deference to any sort of institutional authority--and the funeral preparations for McLeavy's recently deceased wife.

In addition to McLeavy and the dear departed (played by a dummy that gets dumped out of its coffin and into a closet to make room for the stolen money, then gets heaved around the stage to escape detection), there is the predatory young nurse Fay (Nike Doukas), an imperious sexpot unwisely hired to care for the late Mrs. McLeavy.

Now that Fay's job is over, her real work is about to begin. She gets right to the point.

"You've been a widower for three days," she tells the bereaved man. "Have you considered a second marriage?"

Fay knows a thing or two about widowhood. She has seven dead husbands to her credit, not to mention whole wards of dead patients.

Then there's McLeavy's son, Hal (Eric Woodall), an unemployed dullard who has the inconvenient habit of blurting out the truth, and Hal's rakish lover Dennis (Mikael Salazar), who is not only the chauffeur for the funeral cortege but also the mastermind of the bank robbery he and Hal have committed.

Rounding out this peculiar menage is the Scotland Yard detective Truscott (Ron Boussom), a veteran cop with a nose for impossible deductions (next to him Holmes, Clouseau and Columbo are all duffers) as well as a vicious streak of violence.

Intent on solving the crime but lacking a search warrant, he routinely flouts the law and gains entry to the McLeavy household by posing as an inspector from the Metropolitan Water Board. In the end, it makes no difference to the bribable Truscott whether he catches the guilty or frames the innocent, so long as he shares in the loot.

Orton's indictment of a corrupt and hypocritical society naturally depends on absurdities taken to the extreme. But the great virtue of this production is that it tends to avoid the stylized mannerisms of Monty Python-ish satire, a comic prescription too easily associated with Orton.

Boussom's flair for theatrics is kept tightly under control in his portrayal of Truscott. Yet he can suggest a subterranean conspiracy of trench-coated cops with a mere glance. Sometimes he achieves the effect by pitching his voice just above an insinuating growl.

Doukas renders the greedy Fay with clever authority. In her black minidress, fishnet stockings and blond wig, she has all the requisite sexiness for the role, but she does not reduce the character to a mindless caricature. Salazar is also a standout for his energizing insouciance as Dennis.

As McLeavy, Koustik captures the right combination of befuddlement and put-upon outrage. And Woodall capitalizes on Hal's dullness by giving an alert but self-effacing performance filled with small deadpan touches.

Technically, the production also meets SCR's usual high standards.

* "Loot," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 24. $23-$33. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours.

Art Koustik: McLeavy

Nike Doukas: Fay

Eric Woodall: Hal

Mikael Salazar: Dennis

Ron Boussom: Truscott

Robert L. Stewart: Meadows

A South Coast Repertory Second Stage production. Written by Joe Orton. Directed by Mark Rucker. Scenic designer: Dwight Richard Odle. Costume designer: Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko. Lighting designer: Jose Lopez. Sound designer: Garth Hemphill. Production manager: Michael Mora. Stage manager: Randall K. Lum.

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