No one wrote darker, more subversive comedies than Joe Orton—or funnier ones for that matter. Those requiring proof of the above need only head on over to San Pedro’s Little Fish Theatre to check out their terrific production of Orton’s darkly subversive farce.

No social institution is off-limits in 1965’s Loot, the second of the three full-length comedies (Entertaining Mr. Sloan and What The Butler Saw are the others) Orton wrote before being bludgeoned to death by his jealous lover at the age of thirty-four. (For that story, check out Stephen Frears’ Prick Up Your Years on DVD, starring Gary Oldman as Orton.)

In Loot, the then twenty-eight-year-old aimed his poisoned darts at (among other targets) the Roman Catholic Church, the London Police Force, parental authority, the British justice system, and the funeral industry—all to hilarious effect.

Two events have already transpired offstage when the lights go up on Loot. 50something Mrs. McLeavy has recently met her maker, quite possibly with the help of comely-but-deadly nurse Fay (Melissa Brandzel), who herself has buried seven husbands in the ten years since she turned eighteen. Fay has now set her sights on Mrs. McLeavy’s bereaved widower (Rodney Rincon), “the leading Catholic layman within a radius of forty miles” and soon to be late-hubby number eight if Fay has her way.

Meanwhile, McLeavy’s rascal son Hal (Michael Mullen) and his “Baby” Dennis (Andrew David James) have robbed the bank adjoining the funeral parlor where Dennis works and before long have transferred Mrs. McLeavy’s embalmed body to the living room closet, the better to hide the stolen loot in her coffin.

Investigating both the bank job and Mrs. McLeavy’s suspicious demise is Metropolitan Water Board Inspector Truscott (Richard Perloff), in reality Police Inspector Truscott, who reveals in typically sly Ortonian terms why he has no warrant to search the premises. “I’m sure the police must,” he explains, “but as I’ve already informed you, I am from the water board. And our procedure is different.”

Over the course of Loot’s two acts, Truscott goes on defying police procedures left and right, Fay continues her pursuit of the Widower McLeavy (“You must marry again after a decent interval of mourning. A fortnight would be long enough to indicate your grief. We must keep abreast of the times.”), and Mrs. McLeavy’s mummified body and the bundles of stolen pounds keep getting switched from place to place virtually in front of Truscott’s nose. (It’s a tossup as to who’s the more inept, Loot’s Inspector Truscott or The Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau.)

One area (and perhaps the only one) where Loot plays it safer than Orton’s first full-length comedy is in the matter of sexual orientation. Whereas Entertaining Mr. Sloane made it quite clear that its titular antihero swung both ways, only Hal’s pet name for Dennis and Fay’s remark that “even the sex you were born into isn’t safe from your marauding” indicate that Loot’s two youths may be more than just best mates. I wouldn’t have minded a bit more overtness, but the year was after all a pre-Gay Lib 1965.

Little Fish directorial whiz Bert Pigg proves his mastery of things Ortonian, keeping his entire cast on the identical page for maximum hilarity. Play Orton too straight and the jokes are lost. Play him too farcical and the bite of his poison pen is lost. The terrific Little Fish fivesome of Brandzel, James, Mullen, Perloff, and Rincon get it just right, skirting the edge of over-the-top but never crossing over, with particular snaps to Perloff’s inspired take on Inspector Truscott. Frank Pepito has a brief cameo as police officer Meadows.  (Incidentally, the Loot program misleadingly places asterisks after the names of all 4A Union membersActors’ Equity, SAG, AFTRA, and AGVArather than Equity members only, as specified in the Los Angeles 99-Seat Theatre Plan.)

Scenic designer Christopher Beyries takes skilled advantage of Little Fish’s intimate space to turn us into flies on the McLeavys’ walls, Christopher Dyrdahl’s lighting design and Claire Townsend’s 1960s costumes proving highly effective as well. Sound designer Georgina Kester’s selection of British Invasion hits situate us smack dab in the middle of the Swinging ‘60s. Only an occasionally malfunctioning coffin and a “body” scarcely resembling anything human end up distractions. Dawn Doherty is props mistress, Caroline Benzon stage manager, and Drew Fitzsimmons assistant stage manager. Loot is produced by Suzanne Dean.

Joe Orton’s Loot proves once again, as did last month’s Tryst and 2009’s Betrayal, Little Fish artists’ mastery of British theater. The perfect companion piece to their ’09 production of Orton’s What The Butler Saw, Loot both shocks and entertains, with the emphasis firmly on the latter.

Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St. San Pedro.

–Steven Stanley
September 24, 2011

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