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First Nighter: Joe Orton's Astute Loot, Matthew-Lee Erlbach's Probing Handbook

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In a conversation with a youngish theater-aware friend last week, Joe Orton's name came up. She didn't know who he was. Oh, no, Mister Bill! Can it be that one of the funniest and one of the most anarchic comic writers of the 20th century, a true member of the exclusive Sui Generis Club, is already forgotten?

Not at the Westport Country Playhouse, he isn't. There, David Kennedy has directed Joe Orton's nearly 50-year-old play Loot with great assurance, if not at the precisely correct Metronome setting through the first act. No problem with the non-stop belly-laugh-heavy second act, though. That 40-minute segment works like a comic time bomb going off exactly on schedule and obliterating all in its radius with outlandish entertainment.

Those who know about Orton -- many of whom may not only have seen productions of his dark items but may also have read Prick Up Your Ears, John Lahr's masterful critography -- know that the playwright considered nothing sacred. Furthermore, he considered anyone who considered anything sacred in need of instant nose-thumbing and rib-poking.

Among other sometimes-revered institutions Orton mocks in this work, he goes after death and takes it for a merry ride. If his buffoonery isn't as shocking as it was in 1964 when the comedy was first unshrouded, it may be because black humor -- much of it nurtured by Orton's few plays -- is a more common commodity now.

What's happened in the plot at get-go is that Mrs. McLeavy has croaked and lies in a slightly off-center (like everything else here) coffin mourned by Mr. McLeavy (John Horton). Her demise isn't as disturbing to son Hal (Devin Norik). He's preoccupied with hiding the money he and undertaker pal Dennis (Zach Wegner) have recently lifted from a local bank and stored temporarily in an upstage armoire.

Also hardly grieving is nurse Fay (Liv Rooth), who makes a habit of seeing to dying patients in her own calculated way so she can quickly put the moves on the well-heeled elderly widower. Thinking to solve the bank heist, Detective Truscott (David Manis) arrives at the McLeavy residence (Andrew Boyce's late Victorian set with small crucifix representing the McLeavys' compromised Catholicism) and quickly decides he may be on to a murder as well.

Perhaps he is, but not any too successfully. Truscott is an authority figure, and the devious Orton is completely against those types. As far as he's concerned, they're inevitably the fools of the world -- or as Truscott says with severe conviction, "Reading isn't an occupation we encourage among police officers." And that's only a sample of his unceasing flat-footed remarks.

It could be said that Orton viewed the world as a contest between the prevailing stupid population and the wily iconoclasts -- and the contest, as he sees it, is no contest. That's definitely what transpires when Truscott runs up against Hal, Dennis and Fay and, believing himself to have triumphed, is totally outdone in two acts that involve innumerable amusing non sequiturs and Mrs. McLeavy's wrapped body repeatedly turning up here and there.

As a matter of interest now, Loot doesn't seem only about Hal and Dennis as scamps but gives the impression of being a skewed autobiographical portrait of Orton and his roommate/lover (and ultimately, murderer -- it's all quite grim), Kenneth Halliwell. The criminal act the play's characters carry out bears some similarity -- on a lower plane -- to the criminal acts Joe and Ken played at their local library. Bad boys on the loose and on the prowl, they made a habit of mercilessly defacing books for a long time before being apprehended and then imprisoned for six months.

Yes, it may be that Loot has been somewhat defanged by time, but as the cast adroitly goes about the inspired wordplay, it remains a beautifully orchestrated send-up of all things thought to be holy and a confirmation that there's no such thing as logic unless it's the logic of illogic. Joe Orton, done in by Halliwell at 34, was prescient about the way of the world -- in his case, probably too prescient.

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Although Matthew-Lee Erlbach's bio is lengthy, he's new to me, but I won't forget him any time soon. His Handbook for an American Revolutionary at the Gym at Judson -- which has him angling to be ranked along with soloists Eric Bogosian and Danny Hoch -- is an astonishing showcase for both his writing and acting skills.

Under a large and mottled American flag, on which the titles of the show's segments are projected, he impersonates 11 citizens and citizen hopefuls from all over the map by doing little more than changing his shirt and effectively shifting his accent. (Two additional figures are revealed in an online conversation about national security that's deliberately reminiscent of the Bradley Manning case.) Each person introduced is an outré yet identifiable type, and cumulatively they add up to a portrait of this currently deeply and depressingly divided nation -- the eventual message being that diversity is both an immense plus and a severe minus.

Erlbach, medium height and good-looking, shrinks from nothing and from no one in his stretch. Now he's a woman born in a man's body undergoing a transition, now he's a deaf 13-year-old Mennonite girl praying, now he's a morale-boosting infomercial salesman who could be hawking Herbalife but isn't, now he's an anti-strip-mining crusader, now he's an African-American preacher in Buella, Mississippi.

More than once, he switches between two of his characters as quickly as he puts a period on a sentence. (Lighting designer Nicholas Houfek helps immeasurably in making the transitions seamless, and director Tony Speciale abets handily.) At one point, 50-ish white supremacist Bill is explaining to an unseen 16-year-old how he and cohorts must reclaim the white culture. Presto-chango, 40-ish Pakistani soldier-émigré-turned-cabbie is telling a fare why he's not yet fully at home in his adopted land. Presto-chango, Bill is fulminating about supremacy again. And back and forth like that.

Doing his tricky business, Erlebach sometimes gives the impression he's following Anna Deavere Smith's lead in having memorized interviews with a spectrum of Americans. He isn't. While he's done extensive research, the monologues are original. Nonetheless, they're utterly convincing on the subject of what's sometimes very right and sometimes abysmally wrong with the U. S. A. now.