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January 17, 2014

LOOT: When Love Turns to Hate

More than 40 years ago, a friend 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 sent off a check for $300. Why not? 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 Clive Barnes, then the first-string critic for the Times and therefore the most important critic in the city. Barnes’ notice began, “There is something for everything 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.”

I fumed. What kind of review is that?! If you “liked” it, why not just tell people to run, don’t walk? And I fumed more after attending one of LOOT’s final performances (there were 22 of them), and laughing like a seal at what Orton and Goldby had given Rose and Shelley to do.

Last Sunday, when I saw LOOT in the Red Bull Theatre production at the Lortel, I realized that Barnes’ review was actually a very fair one. He seemed to be practicing a reviewing procedure that I later adopted when I became a critic - that is, to be a “theatrical matchmaker.” I’m less interested in whether or not I like a show than I am in finding the right audience to attend it. Barnes was doing just that when he said that if you had an off-the-wall sensibility, you should go to LOOT -- but if you didn’t (and most people don’t), then you should stay away.

It’s said 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 60s 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 he and his boyfriend Dennis should hide the bank money they’ve stolen in her coffin. So, with the help of Fay, formerly the nurse of the deceased who wants a piece of the action -- they dump the body out of coffin, 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 McLeavy, the widower, a nice guy who is framed and certainly finishes last. No one has any sympathy for him (or anyone else, for that matter). In Orton, no good character goes unpunished. LOOT is easily one of the most mean-spirited and nasty plays I’ve encountered in nearly 10,000 trips to the theater.

I’m sure the reason is that I’m now much closer to the dead mother’s and widower’s age than to the boys’. And now I don’t like the way the son is treating his dead parent or his live one.

I remember that 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 in the night air by 9 p.m., totally bored and wondering what all the fuss was about Chekhov. Since then, I’ve seen 17 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 now speaks to me. And just as Andre 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!

Eight years later, on my first day on the job as a high school English teacher, I passed out books that included poetry, prose, and OUR TOWN. With so much time left in the period, 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.

And 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 had rewritten myself and many of my values. Suddenly I agreed with Wilder and his premise that every moment of life is precious and we must not take it for granted. Back in the ‘60s, I was of the generation that proclaimed, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” And while that’s true, there’s another side of that coin: You’ve never been older than you are right now. And now you’re even older. And now you’re even older. And now you’re even older. So get out and live.

Anyway, 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.

Oh, Jesse Berger’s current production? Not so good. Scenic designer Narelle Sissons gave him the correct garish wallpaper; the roses are so large that they almost look like Audrey IIs after a few days of blood-drinking. As for the lighting, if I were designer Scott Zielinski, I’d be ashamed to take the money: all he did was keep the lights on at full force wattage all show long until a quick blackout ended each act.

To be fair, the hyper-lighting is in keeping with the over-the-top chaos that Orton wrote. Berger doesn’t go far enough with it. He does stylize the production; early on, he has Fay make a quip and then look out at the audience. Later, when Fay says, “Death can be tragic for those who are left,” McLeavy and Hal simultaneously lift their heads, look out at the audience and then look down at the floor. This is in keeping with a line that Truscott, the police detective says near play’s end: ‘This had better go no further than these three walls” – subtly but fully acknowledging that they are all characters in a play.

All right, but because Orton baldly stated that LOOT isn’t real-life but just a play, Berger could have made something out of a clunky first-act moment. Hal and Dennis decide that they’re going to do some nasty things with the dead woman’s body, so they pull one of those screens – the type you see in hospitals in semi-private rooms – in front of the place where they’ll carry out their ghoulish activity.

Why do this? There’s no one else in the room, so there’s no need to bring in a screen. However, they’re sparing the audience from this atrocity. So given that we’ll later essentially hear “It’s only a play” from that three-wall remark, why not establish the convention earlier by having Hal and Dennis give the audience a knowing wink as they roll the screen into place?

There’s one facet that’s become ironic in the 49 years since the play premiered. Truscott is as sadistic as fascistic in the way he handles his police duties. He certainly embraces police brutality in the way he treats Hal when he wants information from him. “Under any other political system I’d have you on the floor in tears!” he roars. Hal speaks the truth when he cries out in fear, “You’ve GOT me on the floor in tears!”

Fine, but here’s the thing: Truscott denies for most of the play that he’s with the law, but alleges that he’s simply “an inspector from the Water Board.” Yes, he means the Department of Water … but how interesting that in the ensuing years, the term “waterboard” has come to mean torture. If Orton were alive today (and 81!), this coincidence might have made him laugh hardest of all. But Orton was murdered at the age of 34 by his jealous and underachieving boyfriend. The playwright who had given so many grisly images in LOOT met with a pretty grisly end himself.

         — Peter Filichia

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