Studio Players would not have survived almost 60 years if it didn't know where its bread is buttered. Namely, the fun-loving comedy. Theirs is an audience who likes to laugh, so lighter fare — sometimes pure, unapologetic, artistic fluff — is a staple of at least one play in each season and darker selections do not always do as well at the box office.
But director Eric Seale has struck a satisfying balance between artistic oomph and unfettered humor with Studio's latest show, Loot, playwright Joe Orton's black farce about an undercover detective who discovers culprits of armed robbery and murder in the course of an afternoon.
Orton's play features unabashed critiques of the hypocrisy inherent in 1960s British society, exposing ugly dysfunctions in everything from religion to government to social propriety, but it does so under the veneer of scandalously funny circumstances and language.
An uneven but spirited ensemble executes Seale's vision — a light spin on the dark — which succeeds by embracing Loot's entertaining shock value. Audiences are free to take or leave the harder-hitting messages embedded in the play.
The shock value derives from an invitation to laugh at what is categorically unfunny. Death, for instance.
When young aspiring criminals Hal and Dennis decide to stash a heap of stolen cash in the coffin of Hal's deceased mother, they unceremoniously hoist her remains out of the casket and plunk her body upside down in an old wardrobe, a scene which led to some uncomfortable laughter on Thursday's opening night. The laughter seemed to be asking, "Is it OK to giggle at something so taboo? Is this really a play where a corpse is the central comedic prop?"
Why, yes, it is. In fact, much more uncomfortable but irresistibly funny material follows.
Another cornerstone of Loot's entertainment value is its parodying of the detective drama, chiefly driven by Tim Hull's performance as Inspector Truscott. The show's momentum feels a bit stilted until Hull arrives as the narrative thread that binds the other characters' plights.
Seething intrigue and wallowing in Orton's tongue-in-cheek critique of the British police force, Hull's performance illustrates how the playful and the brutal, the profane and the amusing, collide with regularity and artistic effectiveness in this play.
The supporting cast demonstrates this maxim as well, albeit with less punch than Hull.
Greg Jones is not meant to pack a wallop as Mr. McLeary, the unassuming widower who is the victim of everyone else's deception. He represents the naive, trodden-upon British citizen whose comedic value stems from how pitiable and easily manipulated he is by other characters.
Kevin Greer sports a robust charm and equally robust British accent as Dennis, Hal's criminal co-conspirator.
Brady Wolfrom and Abby Sheridan match Greer's enthusiasm in their own characterizations, but they sometimes get tripped up in the snares of elocution. Orton's sharp, quick British wit is a challenge and the pair's delivery oscillates from spot-on to too-clipped-to-understand to lapses of Americanisms, minor but mentionable impediments that do not detract from the show's overall entertainment value.