‘Loot’: still nasty (and hilarious) after all these years

lootThere’s a first-rate production of “Loot” on at the Westport Country Playhouse, so if you are a fan of black comedy you should try to get there before the show closes on Aug. 3.

Joe Orton’s outlaw sensibility — he was a gay, ex-con with unveiled contempt for “polite society” — made him a hard sell in some quarters.

The playwright was almost immediately embraced in his native England — The Beatles commissioned Orton to write a follow-up to “Help!” — but his darkly comic view of sex and death caused his first two plays to bomb on Broadway.

Orton was just a few years ahead of his time in this country. Broadway comedy in 1965 meant Neil Simon or frothy romantic comedies such as “Cactus Flower.” Orton’s first play — “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” — is about a middle-aged brother and sister who fight over the sexual favors of their young male boarder, and “Loot” is a farce about sex and death set around a loot3funeral.

In “Loot,” a corpse is desecrated; the pretty blonde nurse who cared for the deceased is revealed to be a serial killer; and the young son of the deceased is more interested in a new boyfriend than the grief of his father (or the death of his mother).

The mix of farce and satire and black comedy in Orton anticipated the rise of the Monty Python troupe at the end of 1960s and such oddball British comedies as “How I Won the War” and “The Bed-Sitting Room.”

The characters in “Loot” are almost insanely self-centered, especially Inspector Truscott (beautifully played by David Manis in the Westport production). Truscott spends half the play posing as an employee of the Water Board — he announces later he did this to avoid getting a search warrant — and the difference between what he says and what he does is continually hilarious. Truscott self-righteously tells young Hal (Devin Norik) that in a less civilized country he would have the boy on the floor in tears (as he is kicking Hal senseless on the floor).

The pose of propriety and by-the-book legality is constantly undercut by Truscott’s brutality and corruption (he’s not as dumb as he acts and pulls off a clever bad-cop move so quickly at the end of the play that the three crooks clearly don’t know what hit them).

Orton hated cops, but the mad Truscott might be his greatest creation.

Director David Kennedy clearly realizes that material this crazy has to be played fairly straight or it will go off the rails. Working with a very strong company, he makes us believe in almost every bizarre bit of behavior that is displayed and he never pushes for laughs.

What a tragedy that Orton was murdered by his deranged boyfriend shortly after the London premiere of “Loot.” Who knows what the 34-year-old genius might have given us after the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s?

Dearly Departed

Joe Meyers