By Lanie Robertson Ensemble Cast featuring Matthew Mabe, Craig Fols, Bryan Clark and David McCallum Directed by Casey Childs Primary Stages, 245 West 45th Street, (212) 333-4052
Reviewed by Frank Evans
When Joe Orton was brutally murdered by his lover of fifteen years, Kenneth Halliwell, he left behind three full length plays: "Loot," "What the Butler Saw" and "Entertaining Mister Sloan." Other work includes four short plays, a novel published posthumously and an unproduced screenplay intended for the Beatles. From December 1996 until his death in August 1967, Orton kept a series of diaries, which were published as one volume, edited by John Lahr, author of the Orton biography "Prick Up Your Ears." In the 1987 film based on the book, Gary Oldman played Orton, Alfred Molina was Halliwell and Vanessa Redgrave played Margaret Ramsay, Orton's literary agent
Photos of Orton show a cocky, vital, sexually charged young man, outfitted in tight denim trousers, white T-shirt and black leather cap. He wrote during London's swinging Carnaby Street era, a period which shocked old Britain and liberated a new generation. Halliwell, a writer as well, was a mentor first, exposing Orton to literature and culture he had not known before. Orton eclipsed Halliwell and the diaries seem to indicate that the couple was heading towards separation before the murder-suicide.
In the film, Halliwell was unfairly portrayed as oafish, pompous and vain. Indeed, he wore a toupee, but photos reveal him to be an attractive man and Lahr's book admits that he had charm and wit, albeit stemming from a less iconoclastic sensibility. Halliwell wrote parlor farce and drawing room comedies. Orton took the form and deconstructed it, but would have been unable to do so without Halliwell's guidance and support.
"Nasty Little Secrets", Lanie Robertson's play based on the lives of Orton and Halliwell, was first produced by Primary Stages ten years ago. For centuries some of our greatest playwrights (Shakespeare included) have distorted history in order to heighten drama -- and Robertson's play doesn't fight tradition: it is a mixture of fact, outright fiction and areas that are gray.
To put the lives of the couple in a socio-political context, Robertson has invented two antagonists: The first is Willoughby -- a literary agent who makes house calls, played by David McCallum (yes, the very same, but he doesn't list his hit television series in his bio). The other is a hostile, homophobic constable, played by veteran character man Bryan Clark.
Which is not to say that the play is always kitchen-sink real. At unexpected moments -- sometimes the darkest -- it explodes into music-hall surrealism; and the flights of fancy are delightful. Halliwell and Orton moving into their new bedsitting room involves more than just actors doing a set change, it's a choreographed mini-ballet. The second act contains a British Music Hall gone mad as the cast of four romp through the an examination of privacy, secrecy and sexuality.
The play contends that Halliwell and Orton were at odds because society wouldn't allow a celebrity of Orton's status to live publicly in an gay relationship. The two are depicted as star-crossed lovers, when in fact Orton wanted out of the relationship. In the program notes, playwright Robertson is pointedly unapologetic for bending history to his needs.
Craig Fols,who played Halliwell in the original production, repeats his role in the revival. He is appropriately sympathetic, needy and eventually tortured to the point of imbalance. Newcomer Matthew Mabe is convincing as Orton, and far more buff than the man he portrays, hence a couple of scenes played nude or in briefs. But it's more than beefcake that defines Mabe's multi-hued performance. As for McCallum and Clark -- they're savvy old veterans who make the best of material that, in lesser hands, would come off as inflammatory rhetoric.
And that's where the play disappoints: when it starts preaching. The sermonizing doesn't stop the "Nasty Little Secrets" from being good drama, but it stops it from being great. Halliwell and Orton are shown as victims of their time, rather than two men whose relationship was inevitably destroyed as the apprentice outshone the master. In the play, Orton never stops loving Halliwell. From what we can piece together of the truth, he had tired of him and the reality would seem to be more compelling.
And yet, after seeing the play, I can't imagine anyone unfamiliar with Orton and Halliwell's lives not wanting to know more. So the play serves as an introduction to the diaries, Lahr's biography, and a one volume collection of Orton's plays, all in print. And for those already familiar with their lives, "Nasty Little Secrets" is highly charged, both emotionally and sexually.
Somehow I think Joe would have wanted it that way.