The funny thing about the Williamstown Theater Festival’s “Loot” is that it isn’t particularly funny. Long stretches of silence from the audience peppered the first act, and only in the first few minutes of the short second act, when Jeffrey Jones as Truscott of the Yard got going full tilt, did the laughter begin to build. Why? Perhaps because the timing of the production was never quite right, tending more toward comedy than the black farce Joe Orton’s 1964 script most certainly is. Or is it that the passing years have diluted the play’s original audience-offending outrageousness? Plays that once shocked have a tendency to date, and it could be that “Loot” has become old hat.
There were reasons to expect better. Director John Tillinger is something of an Orton expert — he staged “Loot” on Broadway in 1986 — and Charles Keating, who won a Tony nom for his perf as the bereaved widower McLeavy in that production, is repeating it here. In addition, the role of McLeavy’s weird son Hal is being played by Matt McGrath, who played it previously at California’s La Jolla Playhouse. Whatever the cause, something has gone awry, and although it is by no means a failure, the production doesn’t begin to fully earn its comedy stripes.
Though he has some line problems, Jones also gives the best performance, helped considerably by his scene-stealing part. A great, hulking, red-faced creature in hat and raincoat, Jones has great fun with Orton’s spoof of Sherlock Holmes. Keating has some delicious quavery-voiced moments as McLeavy, but his performance lacks sufficient energy to be fully effective. As Fay, a devoutly Roman Catholic serial murderer/nurse who has dispatched Mrs. McLeavy and has her eye on McLeavy as her next husband (she’s already married and killed seven), Kellie Overbey, though amusingly innocent-pretty, isn’t ripe enough.
As bank-robbing Hal and his partner-in-crime Dennis, the latter the perfectly polite, sympathetic undertaker’s assistant, McGrath and Austin Lysy look just right — particularly Lysy, who has been given a haircut and a skinny-trousered suit that turn him into a Beatles clone (the play is, rightly, done in period). Both young actors are efficient and nicely in character, but, again, never rise to the necessary heights of perfectly natural outrageousness.
James Noone has given the production a neatly apt set, all wallpapered and wood-trimmed with a false perspective that makes it seem deeper than it is while bringing the playing area as far forward as possible, thereby helping to project the dialogue, which, of course, is the crux of Orton. Lighting designer Rui Rita makes amusing use of footlights to emphasize the play’s burlesque theatricality.
The play just doesn’t feel as fresh as it once did. The endless reliance on Wildean epigrams, non sequiturs and reversals of old bromides have begun to seem too formulaic, and the script, though short, seems to be an overextended revue skit (clearly Orton owed a big debt to the Beyond the Fringe quartet). Maybe getting Tillinger and Keating to repeat their chores was not such a good idea — a completely new approach might have produced more amusing dividends.