Half a century ago artistic director Ron Sossi founded the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, and since 1969 the company’s epic artistic odyssey has made this theatrical venue one of Los Angeles’ best, a repository of culture where this reviewer has enjoyed many a production. To commemorate and celebrate the auspicious 50th anniversary, it’s presenting the “Circa ’69” season, with revivals “of significant and adventurous plays that premiered around the time of the Odyssey’s 1969 inception,” according to a press release.
Orton’s two act spoof of Agatha Christie-like mysteries featuring detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple on the page and stage may have jolted auds 54 years ago, but for today’s theatergoers Loot is passé.
The first of the 10 such plays is Joe Orton’s Loot, which opened in the U.K. in 1965. Bart DeLorenzo, who directs the current production at the Odyssey, claims the British playwright’s work hasn’t aged. But I beg to differ - the punch of Loot has been diluted by time. Orton’s two act spoof of Agatha Christie-like mysteries featuring detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple on the page and stage may have jolted auds 54 years ago, but for today’s theatergoers (many of whom did not return to their seats after intermission) Loot is passé. What was a “black comedy” when it debuted is now merely gray.
This British farce’s themes of police brutality and homosexuality were daring in 1965, but for more jaded, worldly or sophisticated (take your pick) ticket buyers in 2019 USA, where the pigs routinely mow down African Americans for the heinous “crimes” of driving, selling cigarettes, not paying for cheap dolls and other (perceived) “serious” infractions, and where same sex marriage and unions are commonplace, Orton’s plot points are now off point and have lost their power to outrage us. I’ve often taken “updated” plays to task for gratuitously modernizing their stories and characters, but the dated Loot is sorely in need of being updated.
To be fair, one of the characters does remain on point - the nefarious nurse Fay, who also romances the bisexual lower class character Dennis (English actor Alex James-Phelps, who is in the Elton John biopic Rocketman). As drolly depicted by Elizabeth Arends, a Shakespearean actress who has performed at London’s Old Vic, Fay is a hoot - and a stronger argument in favor of Medicare-for-all than any Bernie has given so far.
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Indeed, the entire cast excels and DeLorenzo’s ably directs his players. And the gallows humor aspect in terms of how Orton pokes fun at death and the dead still retains the potency to offend the sensitivity of sensitive viewers.
As the not-so-undercover detective Truscott, Ron Bottitta (an L.A. stage stalwart who also appeared in the Black Panther and Endgame flicks) is also riotous. But while it may have come as a surprise to 1960s’ viewers that the police were a sty of corrupt pigs, this will hardly ruffle any feathers in America today, which is currently experiencing the High Renaissance of corruption and excessive use of force by the men in blue.
Hal (British thesp Robbie Jarvis from the Harry Potter film franchise and Jimi Hendrix biopic All is By My Side) and Dennis’ dalliance probably raised a lot more eyebrows and ire than it does now in 2019 L.A. Although Dennis’ switch hitting with Fay is still pretty funny. Broadway and L.A. stage veteran Nicholas Hormann is really top notch as the troubled husband and father McLeavy, and like his co-star, Selina Woolery Smith (who has a double role, including as a corpse), is apparently a Yank trodding the boards with English imports (and Bottitta).
My problem isn’t with the talented thesps or direction but with a story that turned from the cutting edge to the old hat, like sparkling water that has gone flat. Let’s hope that the rest of the Odyssey’s “Circa ’69” roster age better than Loot.
Loot plays Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through Aug. 10 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025. For more info: (310)477-2055, ext. 2; www.OdysseyTheatre.com.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/reviewer and co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”, which he’ll be signing at Hollywood’s The Egyptian Theatre on July 13 during “Tiki Night.”