Style Is Substance
BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | Anger, even rage, is at the heart of some comedy, and few playwrights create work that embodies that mixture better than did Joe Orton, the British bad boy who died brutally at his lover’s hand at age 34. His rages against authority — notably the law and the Catholic Church — are at the heart of his classic black farce “Loot.”
Hal and Dennis have robbed a bank by breaking through the wall from the funeral parlor where Dennis works. They return to Hal’s home to hide their haul and conclude that the perfect place to do so is in the coffin where Hal’s recently deceased mother is laid out. But there isn’t room for both the body and the cash in the coffin, and so begins a madcap romp in which Hal and Dennis and their newfound accomplice Fay, the dead woman’s nurse, play games with the corpse and the money as they try to keep the bumbling Inspector Truscott off their trail. In the end, everyone is shown as corrupt and the innocent end up the accused.
Two highly stylized productions deliver thrilling theatrics
Written with bitter, merciless wit, the play, for all its dark subject matter, is consistently hilarious, even as it intends to be offensive. The new production of the play mounted by Red Bull Theater couches the inherent horror of the situation in stylized performances that underscore the satire and create a very specific theatricality. While Orton insisted that what he wrote was “truth,” he delivers it in a way that is blatantly abstract. The craven plotting by Fay to marry the three-days-widowed Mr. McLeavy and the transparent bumbling of Inspector Truscott are more like Monty Python routines than naturalism, but, of course, that’s why they’re so effective in putting across Orton’s cold view of people and institutions.
Under the direction of Jesse Berger, the farce runs at a fever pitch, and fine performances by Nick Westrate as Hal, Rebecca Brooksher as Fay, Rocco Sisto as Truscott, Ryan Garbayo as Dennis, and especially Jarlath Conroy as McLeavy make this production a wicked pleasure indeed.
“Machinal” is an archaic word that means “of or pertaining to machinery.” It’s also the title of Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play, now getting an absolutely gripping revival at Roundabout. The play, which languished in obscurity for decades, has recently generated renewed interest in academic theaters around the U.S., and its central conceit — that the human spirit is ground down by the ever-growing and pervasive influence of soulless machinery — is as relevant in today’s world driven by algorithms as it was in the late 1920s when the world was being similarly transformed by mechanization.
The play is also intriguing as theatrical history, coming as it did at a time when American playwrights including Eugene O’Neill and Elmer Rice were experimenting on the American stage with expressionism, which got its start in Europe.
This production, directed with a sure and consistent hand by Lyndsey Turner, is thrilling theater from the first moments to the last. Turner has created a holistic piece that melds language, design, and sound to create a powerful and intensely emotional experience.
The story, ripped from the headlines of the day, centers on a character identified as Young Woman who, feeling trapped in a dehumanizing life, marries for expediency and seems doomed to an existence as a cog in the machine. She discovers passion in the arms of a lover, but that only makes her life intolerable and leads her to murder. In time, she falls victim to the most deadly of machines — the electric chair.
Treadwell’s language often mirrors the cold staccato of machinery. Especially in speeches where Young Woman expresses her fear and lack of control as she is swept along into situations, the effect is harrowing. As played by Rebecca Hall, this is one of the most galvanizing performances of the season and her inherent warmth stands in stark contrast to the unfeeling world around her. The other notable members of the cast include Michael Cumpsty as Husband, Morgan Spector as Lover, Suzanne Bertish as Mother, and Arnie Burton in two roles. There is a precision in these performances –– and the smaller roles, as well –– that is true to the style of the play and greatly enhances its impact.
In fact, everything in this production has been designed for maximum theatrical impact. The outstanding sets by Ed Devlin, which involve a huge, rotating machine, Jane Cox’s spectacular lighting, and Michael Krass’ costumes, which use color and texture with extraordinary artistry, complement the expressionist ideal that eschewed the literal for the emotional. The result is a powerful evening of exceptional art that is a clear departure from some of Roundabout’s more traditional fare.
LOOT | Red Bull Theater at the Lucille Lortel, 121 Christopher St., btwn. Bleecker & Bedford Sts. | Through Feb. 9: Tue.-Wed. at 7:30 pm.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $20-$95 at ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 |Running time: two hrs. 10 min.; one intermission
MACHINAL | Roundabout at the American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd St. | Through Mar. 2: Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $52-$127 at roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300 | Running time: 95 min.; no intermission