“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” said L.P. Hartley in his opening lines to “The Go-Between.” Joe Orton’s “Loot,” which opened this past weekend at the Alhecama Theatre, is very foreign indeed. The farce makes traveling back to the Swinging London of the mid-1960s feel as long a trip as one to Oscar Wilde’s 19th-century Britain. As they say about traveling in new cars, your mileage may vary.
Orton was the enfant terrible of the new playwrights of his time, busting genres like Tom Stoppard but poking the establishment where it irritated them most. With his life cut short at age 34, we wonder where Orton might have gone — more political like Stoppard or Harold Pinter? Would he have been an ambassador of bad taste, like our filmmaker John Waters? Or just petered out?
“Loot” is freewheeling, caustic, tasteless and a bit ramshackle. The Ensemble Theatre production of it, directed by Jonathan Fox, rattles on through, making a go of it.
David McCann plays McLeavy, a recently widowed Irish man living in one of the suburbs of London — St. John’s Wood perhaps? And when we say “recently widowed,” that means the casket takes center stage. The casket will be open soon. Helping McLeavy get over his loss even before the burial is nurse and caretaker Fay (Heather Prete), whose short skirt, heaving cleavage and overt suggestion tells us that she now has designs on McLeavy and probably has had a hand in easing Mrs. McLeavy to heaven.
McLeavy’s son Hal (Kerby Joe Grubb) returns to the house. He’s there to pay his respects, but as we soon learn, Hal has respect for very little. However, he is using a locked wardrobe in the front room as temporary storage for his loot. Turns out he and his friend/lover Dennis (Wyatt Fenner) robbed a high street bank the night before and are wondering what to do with the cash.
As people enter and exit, the money and the body change places, the coffin leaves the building and returns, allegiances are formed and broken, lies are told, and comic inertia descends like a fog. Enter the rogue element, Detective Truscott (Ned Schmidtke), who tells McLeavy he’s from the National Water Board. After all, people who have come to check the valves don’t need warrants. Truscott is both Holmesian in his deductive qualities and absolutely stupid when things are staring him in the face. He’s also completely amoral, providing a balance to the intentionally bad behavior on display.
“Loot” provides a few laughs here and there — mostly from the gangbusters performance from Schmidtke — but the play’s ability to tweak morals in 2010 has been diminished. One reason is that we’ve seen much worse since. Another is that Orton’s targets have also diminished.
The banter about the Catholic-Protestant divide doesn’t provide a charge. A joke about nudist camps goes right over everybody’s heads. This reviewer spent much of the production making mental notes of what would have gotten laughs during its original run, but not enough time laughing.
The cast do their best in a universe that doesn’t seem fully explored yet. (The caveat being that by the time you read this and see next week’s production, that may have changed.) The accents are serviceable, but wiggle all over the Southeast of England. Fay’s Cockney chirp comes and goes. Grubb’s East London accent returns when he has juicy slang to deliver, like a young Michael Caine. As Dennis, Wyatt Fenner works the kind of milk-and-syrup voice that Michael Crawford used to bring to films like “The Knack and How to Get It” and does well with it, though by the end I was reminded why I didn’t like Richard Lester’s film in the first place.
However, Ned Schmidtke is hilarious as Truscott, a rolling, spinning ball of chaos who delivers his lines with gusto. If there’s one reason to see “Loot,” it’s his performance.
The cast have impeccable timing as well, and when “Loot” requires the cast to act fast, they rise to the challenge. It’s just that when it comes down to the dialogue, many of the lines spill out like a particularly difficult passage of Shakespeare, understood on the surface, but not spoken as it comes from the gut.
Joe Orton’s world remains close to us through Monty Python, its contemporaries and its descendants, but also “Loot” also feels an arm’s length removed. It’s still a country that needs exploring, no doubt.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; runs through June 27
Where: Alhecama Theater, 914 Santa Barbara St.
Cost: $29 to $48
Information: (805) 965-5400 or ensembletheatre.com