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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Rocco Sisto, Nick Westrate, and Ryan Garbayo.
Photo by Rahav Segev/

Ever since its 1968 Broadway bow, Joe Orton's play Loot has been tough to love in this country. A pinpoint-precise British farce that relies as much on its audience's willingness to swallow uncomfortable subjects as it does flawless timing from its actors and director, it's crammed with ways that it can go astray—and even when things are mostly right, it's still a further-than-usual jump from interesting conceptual writing to explosive theater. Such is the case with Jesse Berger's new revival for Red Bull Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Among the ostensible benefits Berger has at his disposal that many previous directors haven't is our living in more permissive times. The script's focus oscillating between heterosexual immortality and heavy gay subtext is one issue; the specific plot being about the lead characters trying to make off with a fortune by smuggling it out of the house in a coffin—which of course contains, at first, a body—is yet another. A greater tolerance of all facets of sex takes care of the first matter, a wider-ranging "seen-it-all mentality" the second. The stage would seem to be set for the fun to emerge naturally and effortlessly.

It doesn't quite. Loot's chief innovations—the wayward Hal and Dennis stealing the money and exploiting Hal's mother's corpse to keep it under their control, the murderous and murdering nurse they hook into their scheme, the simultaneously bumbling and violent police officer Truscott, the vicious attempts to frame Hal's dad as the most guilty man in the room—are today sufficiently familiar to barely raise an eyebrow. Because all this isn't so shocking now, we're forced to look beneath its surface and realize that there's not as much there as there may have once seemed, the ever-increasing escalation of the characters' awfulness more strained and silly than genuine, the trait that might justify their behavior.

Berger doesn't provide the added assistance that might help everyone get a bit closer. Staging on a claustrophobic box set (by Narelle Sissons) with harsh lighting (Scott Zielinski) that transforms mother's bedroom into an unapologetic haunted house, Berger has granted himself no anchoring realness. Yes, there's plenty of absurdity at work here, but if you don't absolutely believe the characters' motives and actions, and if their success isn't critical to them, farce fails to cohere. That's what happens here as the production careens between slapstick comedy and Grand Guignol tragedy, leaving you no time or opportunity to become invested in it as either narrative or acerbic social commentary. ther. Jarlath Conroy perhaps comes closest as the father, embodying the necessary grief, outrage, and befuddlement as the loss of his wife turns into the loss of his son. Nick Westrate is a committed but not entirely compelling Hal, coming across as neither desperate nor cagey enough to concoct the schemes required. Ryan Garbayo is supple of voice but too stiff of body as Dennis to seem at home during the scenes of sharper physical comedy; Rebecca Brooksher, playing the nurse Fay, has the opposite problem, looking smashing and sexy (her form-fitting costumes are by Sara Jean Tosetti) but cooing out one-dimensional line readings that fail to provide her character much shading or shadow.

Playing Truscott, Rocco Sisto nails both the malice and the silliness, if rarely at the same time. Though decked out with a face-wide brood that should translate into a character, Sisto doesn't create the single unified personality needed to make Truscott make sense. One moment you can't believe he's dumb enough to fall for Hal and Dennis's ruses, the next you don't accept he's smart enough to recognize his own best interests when they're coddled.

Though Berger could probably have smoothed over some of these rougher edges, it's tough to see how he could have achieved anything much more than a quaint period piece, a comedy with borders of danger that aren't that threatening anymore. In the era in which Orton was writing, when homosexuality was outlawed and distrust in established power structures was just kindling, tempering the nastiness with the laughs was the only way to convey a life-or-death point what changes needed to be made. Now that so many of them have arrived, this work screams of having outlived its usefulness and entertainment value. For decades, the world wasn't ready for Loot. Now that it is, Loot is sadly no longer ready for us.

Through February 9
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets and performance schedule at OvationTix

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