Joe Orton
Joe Orton
Almost 35 years ago, a producer sent me the script of Joe Orton's Loot and asked me if I wanted to invest in the upcoming Broadway production. I read it, cackled with glee at its outrageousness, and soon sent a check for $300. Why not? To add to the fun, it would star George Rose, whom I'd loved in Richard Burton's Hamlet. So many who saw him in A Man for All Seasons loved him, too. Carole Shelley, one of the delightful Pidgeon Sisters in the original Odd Couple, would co-star, and the director was Derek Goldby, who'd just done such brilliant work on another British play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

I didn't get to see Loot during any of its 11 previews, so I couldn't say for sure whether the production worked; but I was so angry when I read the review of Clive Barnes, who was then the first-string critic for the Times (and therefore the most important critic in the city). Barnes's notice began, "There is something for everyone to detest in Joe Orton's outrageous play Loot. To like it, I think you might have to have a twisted sense of humor. I liked it. But I do trust it's not for you, for you would be a far nicer person if it were not."

What kind of review was that?! I fumed. If you "liked" it, why not just tell people to run, don't walk, to see the show? And I fumed more after attending one of Loot's final performances (there were 22 of them) and laughed like a seal at what Orton and Goldby gave Rose and Shelley to do.

But last week, when I saw Loot at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, I decided that Barnes's review was actually a very fair one. He seemed to be practicing a reviewing procedure that I've been following ever since I became a critic -- that is, to be a "theatrical matchmaker." I know that I'm less interested in whether or not I liked a show than in deciding if I think there's an audience for it. And Barnes was doing just that when he said that you should go to Loot if you had an off-the-wall sensibility -- but, if you didn't (and most people don't), then you should stay away.

I'm reminded of a play called Telltale Hearts that played the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey some years ago. It was about six twentysomethings in a singles bar. Two get together and stay together; two get together and break up; two get together and may or may not stay together. I thought it was silly and sitcomish, but I sure could see that the twentysomethings in the audience were laughing their heads off. Besides, it had been years since I'd been in a singles bar and years since I'd been unattached. How could I relate to it? So, although I could have written a review saying how putrid the play was on the basis of what it didn't do for me, I instead enthusiastically wrote that single people should immediately get down to Crossroads because not only would they relate to the people on stage, but they'd also be assuaged that those characters made bigger fools of themselves in a singles bar than they ever had. I concluded the review: "And, single people, if you attend, who knows who you'll meet in the audience during intermission? Maybe you won't be single any more."

Well, the play started selling out, and had to be extended twice. Flash forward to the end of the year, when I made out my annual list of bests. The press agent from Crossroads called to thank me for all the mentions I'd given to her theater, before adding, "And I hate to embarrass you by bringing this up, but you forgot all about Telltale Hearts" -- to which I said, "I didn't forget about it. I didn't like it at all." She was stunned. "You didn't like it?! But you gave it that wonderful review!" That, I explained to her, was theatrical matchmaking. Why should a play die just because it didn't do something for me when it clearly would do something for so many others? I can only hope that Telltale Hearts resulted in some happy marriages and families.

When I saw Loot last week, I hated it. Absolutely hated it. Not because the production wasn't so good (though it wasn't) but because of Orton's play. I've liked the play less and less each of the eight times I've seen it -- in London, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey -- but this was the last straw. Why? They say that when love turns to hate, there's no hate stronger. I was in my 20s when I first read Loot and I'm in my 50s now. And Loot is decidedly a young person's play, because it feeds into a kid's sense of rebellion and outrage.

The plot: It's the day of Hal's mother's funeral but he's not shedding tears. Instead, he's thinking that if he and his lover Dennis hide the money they've stolen from a bank in her coffin, they'll get away with the crime. So, with the help of his late mother's nurse -- who wants a piece of the action -- they dump the body out of the coffin and strip it naked but fail to notice that one of mum's eyes has fallen out. It rolls around the floor for quite some time. En route, Orton excoriates everyone from the police to the Catholic Church. Of his six characters, five are totally corrupt -- and the sixth is the widower, a nice guy who certainly finishes last. No one else has any sympathy for anyone. It's easily one of the most mean spirited and nasty plays I've encountered in nearly 6,000 trips to the theater.

Tom Story and Jeremy Webb in Loot atthe McCarter Theatre Center(Photo:  T. Charles Erickson)
Tom Story and Jeremy Webb in Loot at
the McCarter Theatre Center
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
I'm sure the reason I feel that way is that I'm now much closer to the dead mother's and widower's age than to the boys'. I don't like the way the son is treating his dead parent or his live one. I think about Orton, who was savagely murdered by his jealous and professionally unsuccessful lover not long after Loot opened. I wonder: If he were still alive -- and closing in on 70 now -- would stand by what he'd written?

The same year I saw Loot, I saw Chekhov's The Three Sisters for the first time -- or, at least, the first act of it. I was out in the night air by 9pm, wondering what all the fuss was about Chekhov. Since then, I've seen 15 different productions of The Three Sisters, which is now tied with Our Town as my all-time favorite play. What it says about lost opportunities and the perils of inertia really speaks to me these days. And just as André came to rue his marriage, I came to rue mine.

Speaking of Our Town, I first read it at 15 -- or, at least, the first act of it. What a bore, I thought. I still remember how, eight years later, I got a job as an English teacher and, on the first day of class, I passed out books that included poetry, prose, and Our Town. I decided to assign kids parts in the play and have them read it out loud. It was either that or have them write about What They Did on Their Summer Vacations. This time around, I was stunned at the power of the play. That Thornton Wilder must have done a helluva rewrite in the past eight years! Of course I was the one who, in the interim, rewrote myself and many of my values. Now I agree with Wilder and his premise that every moment of life is precious and we must not take it for granted.

So don't necessarily believe that the opinion you hold today about a play is one you'll hold now and forever. That's why I don't rail against revivals the way so many people automatically do: Because I like to see how I've changed or if I've changed since the last time I saw the show. Though I do hope that I'll never again have to endure a revival of Loot.

********************

[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]