“You and Kenneth do lead such interesting lives.” So says Mrs. Corden, downstairs neighbor to Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell in “Prick Up Your Ears.” Knowing laughter ripples through the auditorium, because both achieved notoriety: Orton for being Britain’s establishment-baiting, bad-boy playwright, Halliwell for murdering him. Simon Bent’s new biodrama is darkly comic, as it should be, but helmer Daniel Kramer gradually pushes his smartly cast production into — pardon the expression — overkill.
The territory isn’t new. Stephen Moss wrote “Cock-Ups,” a 1981 farce about Orton’s life. John Lahr weighed in, writing Orton’s biography and a biodrama about him before editing his diaries. Alan Bennett turned Lahr’s work into Stephen Frears’ “Prick Up Your Ears.” But not only is Bent’s play unrelated to that movie, he takes the material in a new direction.
Bent examines events through the eyes of Halliwell (Matt Lucas). He’s discovered on his bed in their shared North London flat struggling to write. At least, that’s what Bent wrote. Kramer, prefiguring the high emotions to come, adds an opening sequence in which Halliwell swoons to a recording of the ecstatic music accompanying the young lovers meeting in Strauss’ opera “Der Rosenkavalier.”
From there, Halliwell moves into comic self-dramatization as he imagines himself appearing on BBC Radio’s venerable interview show “Desert Island Discs.” It’s a deftly comic way of handling exposition. Indeed, the entirety of the entertaining first act is highly impressive in its dovetailing of facts and comic observation.
Lucas, famous for his co-creation of TV’s “Little Britain,” almost dances through the role. Halliwell was prematurely bald and overweight, but Lucas makes him surprisingly skittish while at the same time exaggerating his girth to comically grotesque effect. He also makes Halliwell’s pomposity attractively comic and the energy of his instant mood switches suggests what attracted him to the younger, more daredevil Orton (Chris New).
Dressed almost throughout in the playwright’s trademark tight white T-shirt and jeans, New is also light on his feet, racing to the typewriter, almost sweating out ideas for the plays that made him (in)famous.
He gives highly sexed Orton a paradoxical degree of innocence, but it comes with laserlike attack. When wannabe hausfrau Halliwell accuses him of having no heart, his retort “Right, it’s pure muscle” is slammed back with such clean force, it sounds like a threat.
The problem biographical dramatists face is that real lives tend not to have dramatic arcs. And that proves the case here. In the second (of nine) scenes as they return from separate six-month jail sentences, it’s clear Orton is outgrowing the man who began his career. “You’ve changed,” asserts Halliwell. “And you haven’t,” comes Orton’s resigned retort. From there, sidelined, almost agoraphobic Halliwell grows ever needier, more frantic, more impossible.
His disintegrating mind is further exposed by designer Peter McKintosh who increasingly plasters the walls of the down-at-heel ’60s room with the magazine cut-out collages Halliwell obsessively created.
Paradoxically, however, the drama runs out of steam because Kramer overheats everything too early. This dangerously extended liaison was clearly a nightmare on repeat — all the more reason, dramatically speaking, to ensure their frustration and rage don’t boil over too soon. Lucas’ shivering, near-naked, pill-popping derangement is impressively sustained, but the fierceness of the final scenes is so extreme that it becomes disappointingly disengaging.
Mercifully, Gwen Taylor provides comic zest and palpable warmth throughout. Mrs. Corden’s class pretensions and mangled language are shown as the inspiration for Kath in Orton’s “Entertaining Mr. Sloane.” Taylor’s blissfully judged performance delivers what the two men fatally lacked: ever-increasing emotional connection.