British trickster Joe Orton was the Mick Jagger of modern drama: a provocateur heralding a world newly disordered, a sexy beast strutting through the swinging '60s with promiscuous talent. But Orton died young, leaving us with only a handful of farces that are blindingly funny and hard to pull off. Now Glendale's A Noise Within evidences its usual intrepidness by tackling "Loot," Orton's 1965 razz at Catholicism, death and the classic English detective story.
Mrs. McLeavy, that nice old lady, has just died. Her pert blond nurse, Fay (tight-faced seductress Jill Hill), thinks sufficient time has passed -- roughly 24 hours -- to persuade the grieving widower (Alan Blumenfeld) to make her the next Mrs. McLeavy. Meanwhile, the family's bisexual son, Hal (Joshua Biton), has robbed the bank next door with his lover Dennis (Joseph Rye) and he figures Mum's casket is the ideal hiding place for the stolen cash. Enter Inspector Truscott (Geoff Elliott), who threatens to gum up the works of this get-rich-quick scheme.
Like other interlopers who ruled the English drawing room on and off stage, the working-class Orton knew life itself was theater in which the best performance could set the world's agenda. A keen awareness of such arbitrariness drives his farces, with the result that everything -- cause and effect, language, morality -- is turned on its head, sometimes literally: Fay and Hal stash his mother's body upside-down in a closet. "Here -- the Ten Commandments," says Fay, solemnly placing a framed copy of the biblical injunctions on Mrs. McLeavy's coffin. "She was a great believer in some of them."
This kind of comedy is as blank as a pickpocket's smile. It has to be utterly straight-faced and yet somehow faintly savage. Co-directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott find plenty of Orton's absurdity but not enough of his danger.
Truscott is a parody of the flat-footed gumshoe, but he's also a bully whose self-serving illogic wreaks as much (or more) havoc than Fay or Hal's banal gold-digging. Elliott's detective proves tremendously funny and a real pleasure to watch, but when we least expect it, our laughter should stick in our throats -- and here it never really does.
The staging doesn't always serve the play, either. Michael C. Smith's nicely cloying set, all kitschy stained glass and funeral wreathes, forces most of the action so far upstage that the comedy seems to happen in the next room instead of in front of us.
I'd guess this show will get better as the actors find their rhythm; the ensemble seems game for the job, clearly relishing Orton's linguistic cheek. A Noise Within's latest production may not quite be a riot, but it definitely has sympathy for the devil.
Where: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale
When: In repertory; for schedule,
Ends: June 3
Price: $26 to $38
Contact: (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1
Running time: 2 hours