Stage & Dance

Joe Orton's dark comedy 'Loot' gets director Seale's approval

Inspector Truscott (Tim Hull), left, gets rough with young thief Dennis (Kevin Greer) in Studio Players's production of Loot, a dark comedy by Joe Orton. The play is directed by Eric Seale, artistic director of the Actors Guild of Lexington, and runs through June 5.
Inspector Truscott (Tim Hull), left, gets rough with young thief Dennis (Kevin Greer) in Studio Players's production of Loot, a dark comedy by Joe Orton. The play is directed by Eric Seale, artistic director of the Actors Guild of Lexington, and runs through June 5. Lexington Herald-Leader

Reading the description for Joe Orton's Loot on Studio Player's Web site, it might be easy to think it's a farce along the lines of the community theater staple Arsenic and Old Lace:

"Loot follows the fortunes of two young thieves, Hal and Dennis. Together they rob the bank next to the funeral parlor where Dennis works and return to Hal's home to hide the money. Hal's mother has just died, and the money is hidden in her coffin while her body keeps on appearing around the house."

Not too far from little old ladies poisoning lonely bachelors to put them out of their misery.

Not too far away, that is, unless the name Joe Orton means something to you.

In his abbreviated career in the 1960s, Orton established his own brand of dark humor with plays such as What the Butler Saw and Entertaining Mr. Sloane.

"It's a play full of bad guys," says Eric Seale, director of Studio's production of Loot. "I'll be interested to see who the audience ends up rooting for because you can't really like any of these characters."

And that's the way Seale likes it.

The director, who is artistic director of Actors Guild of Lexington, has established a reputation for directing dark plays often marked by their skillful use of language, such as David Mamet's American Buffalo, which he directed for Balagula Theatre in 2006, and Sam Shepard's True West, which he directed last year for Studio.

Mamet and Shepard are playwrights to whom Seale continuously returns when discussing Orton.

"None of these playwrights write a play where the only thing that's happening is what's being said," Seale says. "All of them play with language and what it can do. There is a meter you must follow to make it work."

Actor Tim Hull, who was in True West and stars as Inspector Truscott in Loot, says these types of shows have a particular appeal to Seale.

"He's long been drawn to these dark comedies that show how intense, dark situations can be funny," Hull says.

But he notes that Loot is more overtly funny than most of Mamet's and Shepard's works. And that is part of what sets Orton apart.

The English playwright was a master of humor who made you laugh in spite of yourself. Most of his output was in the 1960s, before he was killed by his lover in 1967 at the age of 34.

"Orton's life is just fascinating," says Seale, who was first drawn to the playwright by John Lahr's biography, Prick Up Your Ears, and its 1987 film adaptation starring Gary Oldman as Orton.

To Seale, Orton's early death rekindles that old question raised about many brilliant artists who died young, such as Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon.

"If he had lived, where would he have gone next?" Seale says. "Would he have continued to do great work, or would he have gotten commercial and comfortable?

"I tend to think Orton would have gone on to do some amazing things."

And Seale definitely thinks it's worth keeping Orton's work alive.

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