A new carpet has been rolled out — 2,400 hundred yards, to be exact — and 200 gallons of paint have bathed the lobby and auditorium at McCarter Theater Center. The six-week summer renovation was completed in time for the season opening of Joe Orton’s lunatic farce “Loot.” The passing of years has weakened the corrosive sting of the black comedy. Thirty-five years ago, not long after its playwright was murdered, its style of irreverence became fashionable. Orton’s lethal sense of humor can still send some patrons scurrying out the doors at intermission, yet the play’s offensive edge has softened. It remains very funny, and is likely to offend a handful of audience members, especially if a favorite aunt has just passed away.
The unholy blend of murder and mayhem is commandeered by a corrupt Scotland Yard detective (Mark Nelson) — posing as a water department official — in pursuit of a homicidal nurse (Fiona Gallagher) who has fatally physically divorced herself from seven husbands.
During his investigation, the gumshoe blunders upon the booty from a nearby bank robbery, masterminded by a mortician’s assistant (Jeremy Webb) and his best friend (Tom Story), the deceased’s son. The dimwitted novice crooks hide the stolen cash in the coffin of a dearly departed mother, stashing the dear old girl’s body in a closet. The corpse is moved around in various states of undress.
Religion, law, death, murder and an assault on moral behavior are the order of the day, and the bawdy absurdity ultimately triumphs. It’s all deliciously funny and devilishly caustic.
The sprightly revival in Princeton is reasonably well paced, but director Daniel Fish has missed some of the play’s off-the-wall humor and a good deal of its blatantly subversive spirit. The knockabout action boasts a giddy edge, especially when the naked corpse is disguised as a dress designer’s mannequin and rushed about from coffin to closet.
The actors have a touch-and-go affair with their cockney accents, but for the most part, they present absurdly zany pawns in an abstract game of love and death. The dumb gumshoe is a spinoff of Inspector Clouseau, who had made his deliciously clumsy debut three years earlier in Blake Edwards’ “The Pink Panther.” As the moronic, bullying detective, Nelson is delightfully droll and foolishly endearing. His mannered stupidity receives big and well-deserved guffaws.
Gallagher, as the conniving, lecherous, money-hungry nurse, manages to woo the bereaved husband of the deceased with subtle acidity. Her sensual cunning is not as seductively funny as it might be, but her teasing manipulative action firmly takes hold of one’s attention. Martin Rayner acts the grieving widower and abused father with the right dash of detached befuddlement.
As the dim-bulb son of the deceased and the undertaker’s crooked assistant, respectively, Story and Webb are merely adequate as homosexual buddies — who also end up seduced by the manipulative nurse. They can be quite funny, but they need more of the play’s absurd physical comic spirit.
In the small role of the bobby, Mark Mineart is an effectively erect and mustached defender of the crown.
Christine Jones’ set of a modest front parlor is appropriately tacky enough, heightened by especially garish wallpaper, but on the expansive McCarter stage it appears to be a bit too expansive for the confined farcical action.
“Loot” remains a pointedly unique comic spree, and while not all will comfortably digest its rich nutty splendor, Orton’s clever if unsavory humor manages to survive with a certain distinction.