A wanking good time

With all the accolades showered on a young Joe Orton (the very acclaim that, in part, caused lover Kenneth Halliwell's silver hammer to come down upon the 34-year-old playwright-novelist's head) during the mid-'60s, more than 30 years passed after his murder before the wicked farceur received his most fitting tribute. English newspapers announced in January that the public lavatories Orton loved to frequent for anonymous sex in North London were put on an "at risk" register, the same thing as our historic landmark status. More than 100,000 pounds of lottery money would be dedicated to their restoration. Authorities admitted they didn't know which factor was more influential: the Victorian architecture of the loos, or the fact they figured so prominently in Orton's diaries, John Lahr's biography Prick Up Your Ears, and Stephen Frears' film.

Protests flared up, of course, but were promptly overridden. "Oh, go have a wank," might have been Orton's reply to the moral outrage. That's pretty much what his entire stage canon says to the towering institutions -- church, state, family -- that the writer described as "sick" and "unnatural." Not coincidentally, the same epithets were hurled at the boisterously gay Orton. Entertaining Mr. Sloane is often cited as his greatest play. Yet the most succinct expression of his contempt for middlebrow, mediocre morality is Loot, which has been given a snazzy and snappy staging by Fort Worth's Allied Theatre Group, the new incorporation of Stage West and Shakespeare in the Park.

Perhaps what impresses you most about this production, directed by Jakie Cabe, is that the artists at work here have dropped the snarling pose so often pumped into Orton's dialogue. In the same way that some people strain to be "witty" or "classy" while delivering the lines of Noel Coward (a man Orton despised for his materialism and class posturing), so they often adopt a certain blue-collar nihilism when jabbing at the targets Orton sets up. They feel they have to display the hostility that the playwright is so often accused of oozing. But Allied Theatre's Loot aims for the reckless and merry sides of Orton and proves that, as outrageous as he tried to be in his quotes about society, there is an affection for its foibles hidden within his stage tirades.

Loot, which premiered in 1965, is about as wanton and shameless a look at greed, family responsibility, and sexual omnivorousness as you're likely to find in any era, even in the slouching towards Gomorrah we're supposedly locked into in the '90s. McLeavy (Steve Powell), a devout Catholic and unfailingly honest man, finds himself suddenly alone when his dear wife dies. But he hardly has time for grief, as he's set upon by his wife's lascivious nurse Fay (Johna Sprizzo), who apparently disposes of husbands the way some women discard feminine hygiene products, and by his ne'er-do-well son Hal (Mark Shum), a fellow who squanders his money at brothels but whose heart really belongs to male lover Dennis (W. Robert Claycombe).

On the eve of Hal's mother's funeral, he and Dennis knock off a bank and wind up stashing the bundles of cash in a dresser at McLeavy's home. Hal and Dennis want to move the booty before Dad finds it. Fay discovers their conspiracy and sees a chance to earn some even quicker cash. All three are under pressure when a man from the "water board" named Truscott (Jim Covault) comes to check the pipes but begins making some no-nonsense inquiries into the whereabouts of the stolen money.

With its displays of physical violence by civil servants, its upraised middle finger directed at marriage and funeral rituals and Catholic theology, Loot was ripe for use by angry young men and women in the '60s and '70s as a brute slam against authority. No doubt, Orton had that in mind too, but it's a pleasure to see that his equal-opportunity irreverence holds more value today than just as an anarchic tract. Allied Theatre's Loot turns the brutality into slapstick and makes schemers Hal, Dennis, and Fay endearing despite their nefarious deeds. Mark Shum makes sure there is a degree of real affection in his dealings toward W. Robert Claycombe -- their brothel visits seem like just another conjugal vacation. Johna Sprizzo brings such single-minded dedication to homicide, extortion, and serial wedlock that we can't help but feel she's an independent-minded woman who has merely chosen an unconventional career path. The Fort Worth show proves there's no need to get all righteous about the injustices of religion, family, law, and the economic machine -- the crimes will reveal themselves if you just relax and enjoy while they're being committed.

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Jimmy Fowler