Primary Stages, which first produced “Nasty Little Secrets” in 1988, has revived the tragi-comedy by American playwright Lanie Robertson. The play, which chronicles the events that preceded the murder of the celebrated British dramatist Joe Orton, is a corrosive study of blossoming genius and escalating rivalry. Staged by Casey Childs with a lively sense of the absurd and dark, mounting tension, the production is heightened by the brilliant tandem performances of Matthew Mabe and Craig Fols.
Orton (Mabe), who was bludgeoned to death by his lover and roommate Halliwell (Fols) in the summer of ’67, was at the time a fresh, new satirist in London’s West End. The success of his sardonic black comedy “Loot” marked the beginning of a promising and all-too-brief career, which would be followed by “What the Butler Saw” and “Entertaining Mr. Sloane.” Robertson’s revised biographical play encompasses much of the bitter, mocking wit that governed Orton’s work.
The play shifts in time during the decade prior to Orton’s death in the little Islington flat he shared with his mentor Halliwell. The worldly and disillusioned Halliwell is a failed actor-artist-novelist, who nurtures a dormant creative talent in Orton. Halliwell harnesses the warped and jeering logic of Orton’s farcical assault on the establishment.
With malicious abandon, the pair would steal books from the local library for the pleasure of nourishing their literary and artistic habits. Before returning the books to the shelves, they would adorn the dust jackets and pages with erotic collages. Their desecration of public property would eventually lead Orton and Halliwell to a six-month jail sentence each and social disgrace.
Psychiatric therapy during incarceration leaves a muddled impact on Halliwell , and upon his release he struggles with his own sexuality, is offended by Orton’s blatant blasphemy and comes to terms with his personal failures. A gnawing jealousy surfaces after Orton’s West End triumph, and after struggling with a kind of Salieri-Mozart rivalry, Halliwell murders Orton and takes his own life in the play’s devastating and chilling finale.
Fols, who created the role of Halliwell for Primary Stages a decade ago, gives a wonderfully polished performance as the complex teacher and companion. (He would make a grand Oscar Wilde.) In marked contrast, Mabe’s manic energy as Orton gives the play its pungent comic expanse.
David McCallum displays an oily sophistication as a manipulative and meddling literary agent, and Bryan Clark, as the foolish detective and probation officer, is not a far comic cry from Orton’s bumbling sleuth in “Loot.” The four actors also engage is a deliciously campy and lewdly amusing music hall fantasy.
William Barclay’s set design of a tacky little flat incorporates revolving walls that define the passage of time, and the actors do some subtle remodeling in whimsical dancing scene changes.