September 22, 2002, Sunday


THEATER REVIEW; 'Loot' Still Has Power to Shock, With Light Touch


PRINCETON -- IN the mid-1950's, the ''angry young man'' school of playwriting changed the landscape of British theater. A decade later, Joe Orton seized that trend and hurled it to its most amoral, explicit extreme in ''Loot.'' The play, now in a scintillating staging at the McCarter Theater, is Orton's view of impolite society's irreverence for the dead, and a grimly hysterical view it is. (We're talking hysterical in every sense of the word.) In that view, police lawlessness and disorder is a given. On the farcical surface, the play flaunts Orton's talent to offend. In a world that appears oblivious to the continual uncovering of nasty secrets in high places, one might assume that the Ortonesque shock factor has lost its power. Not so. Although Orton said he was not out to offend, how could he not do so? Of course, he knew he did, going so far as to invent a self-righteously indignant woman who wrote letters to newspapers, protesting Orton's contempt for ''ordinary, decent people,'' and signing them Edna Welthorpe. One such letter is excerpted in the McCarter program. Referring to a performance of ''Loot'' that she attended with her young niece, the self-appointed protector of the public good wrote, ''We both fled from the theater in horror and amazement well before the end.'' Of course, Orton made sure that his Mrs. Welthorpe saw all his plays, or parts thereof, and that she actually took a minor to this one. But there are real people with similar sensibilities who might be sitting nearby. At last Friday's opening-night performance, a row of people bolted during intermission. One wonders what -- or whether -- they were thinking. It seems unlikely that they were reflecting upon the real nature of humans, undisguised. Could the sight of a cadaver upside down in the closet, or of a coffin stuffed with stolen money, drive anyone away? After all, events in news reports are often more deranged or just plain dishonest, and ''Six Feet Under,'' a dark comedy about a funeral home, is a popular, award-winning television show. Orton insisted that his plays were realistic. Yet he went on to say of ''Loot,'' ''Nothing in that play happens as it happens in life.'' The playwright was referring immodestly (and characteristically) to the quality of his own writing and the style it demanded. He called that style truthful, but it is a metaphoric truthfulness. ''Loot'' can lapse into travesty or trudge on to self-consciousness -- overly serious, overly sincere and sluggish. Another failed ''Loot'' is a standard entry in the annals of theater, and that includes the London original 37 years ago, as well as the first Broadway production and film version that followed. The grossness and lewdness of ''Loot'' demands the delicate touch of a director who can negotiate chaos and madness with a meticulous sense of order and sanity. In the extraordinary Daniel Fish, the McCarter has just such a magical manipulator. Suddenly a balanced perspective of the playwright as prankster, and as chronicler of panic, takes shape. Plausibility and heightened theatricality are one. More astonishingly, we are confronted with a vastly entertaining wickedness within us, the capacity to take pleasure in the unspeakable. It's not that Mr. Fish is enticing anyone to dismember corpses, although appealing to a dopey police inspector's vulnerability is quite another story. What Mr. Fish has achieved would be impossible without his charming cast. We are not supposed to be charmed by such odious characters. They do very bad things. In his loony fashion, so does Truscott, an idiotic Big Chief of Scotland Yard, another masterly performance by the protean Mark Nelson. Fay (Fiona Gallagher) is a killer nurse, literally. Meadows (Mark Mineart) is a policeman, holding handcuffs. Ms. Gallagher walks toward him, hands extended. He drops to his knees in helpless, worshipful adoration. Who wouldn't? Don't ask what it is Ms. Gallagher does, or how she does it. There must be something in the way she walks. Behold her escalation of power through sensuality, underplayed and thoroughly exploited. In a final tableau, Ms. Gallagher is intertwined with two horrid young homosexuals (winningly played by Jeremy Webb and Tom Story). It is a mordant take on ''Design for Living.'' But then it's no big leap from Noel Coward to Joe Orton, whose sense of social outrage naturally follows Shaw. And while Orton's craftsmanship matches Oscar Wilde's, his epigrammatic wit surpasses the playwright who said style was all. But Orton did not elevate style over content, mastering one while upsetting the real Edna Welthorpes of the world with the other. ''There is something at once traditionally elegant and nasally obscene about his manner,'' the critic Harold Clurman wrote of Orton, ''as if Oxford had produced an irrepressible guttersnipe.'' Your perception of reality is yours. But it cannot be denied that Orton transformed his into art. Mr. Fish and his lovely cast fulfill the art part, and may give you a fresh look at what is real. ''Loot,'' at the McCarter Theater, Princeton. Through Sept. 29. Information: (609) 258-2787. Published: 09 - 22 - 2002 , Late Edition - Final , Section 14NJ , Column 1 , Page 19