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Uneven Steps

Irene's Dinner Theater treads into the darkness of black comedy 'Ruffian on the Stair.'

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At age 34, English playwright Joe Orton was beaten to death by his lover. The weapon, a hammer, was most appropriate, for Orton's plays were vicious little hammer-attacks on English bourgeois sensibilities and, indeed, on the notion of humanity itself.

His works, the best of them written between 1964 and 1967, are not merely cynical, but savage: comedies about mean, selfish, morally corrupt characters presented in a way calculated to make an audience squirm. Orton was the boor at the dinner party, spouting scandalous, selective truths nobody wanted to hear (at least not about themselves). His immediate, better-mannered predecessors were Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter; his most notable descendant is filmmaker Neil LaBute.

To give you an idea of what Orton got up to, he snagged a commission to write the screenplay for a Beatles movie. As Orton explained: "By page 25 (the Beatles) had committed adultery, murder, dressed in drag, been in prison, seduced the daughter of a priest, I mean the niece of a priest, blown up a war memorial and all sorts of things like that." Brian Epstein rejected the script as "not quite suitable."

Orton's plays, Loot and What the Butler Saw, in contrast, did get produced to general--if uncomfortable--acclaim. They remain popular in a way that's only slightly more cultured than the popularity of the TV show and movie Jackass: We can't help staring at repulsive people doing incredibly stupid things. What elevates Orton above the perpetrators of Jackass is that his characters aren't just exhibitionistic idiots; they're often venal and always conniving, and they stick around long enough to face the consequences of their stunts.

Orton's one-act black comedy The Ruffian on the Stair hasn't quite achieved the staying power and notoriety of Loot and What the Butler Saw, but it does seep onto the stage with some regularity. Right now, it's puddling in a dank corner of Irene's, the Congress Street Peruvian restaurant valiantly trying to establish a dinner-theater series.

Orton takes his title and the play's basic setup from lines by W.E. Henley: "Madam Life's a piece in bloom, / Death goes dogging everywhere: / She's the tenant of the room, / He's the ruffian on the stair." In the play, the ruffian (but not exclusively the death figure) is Wilson, a young man who shows up at a London flat purportedly looking for a spare room. The seedy apartment is inhabited by Joyce, a reformed prostitute, and the older Michael, a jealous, potentially violent but minor thug.

It turns out that Michael has killed Wilson's brother; whether it was a hit-and-run accident or a paid hit isn't quite clear. And although Wilson is doing his best to both intimidate and seduce Joyce, or at least make Michael think he's seduced Joyce, simple revenge isn't necessarily what he's after.

One thing that is perfectly clear is that Wilson and his brother were lovers, a touch typical of Orton. Why stop at homosexuality when you can be even more transgressive with incestuous homosexuality? Less typical of Orton is the tender love Wilson felt for his brother; Orton isn't usually that generous with his characters.

The small opening-night audience at Irene's last week wasn't quite sure it was OK to laugh at any of this. Part of that was Orton's doing--an Orton comedy is never entirely successful unless the audience is uncomfortable--but another part of it was the rough production.

To their credit, director Charlie Bass (who also plays Wilson) and the cast have taken to heart Orton's admonition about staging Ruffian on the Stair: "The play is clearly not written naturalistically, but it must be directed and acted with absolute realism. No 'stylization,' no 'camp.' ... Every one of the characters must be real. None of them is ever consciously funny."

So Bass delivers us a Wilson who is low-key and soft at the center, only sporadically sharpening an edge or two. This is all right--Wilson is, after all, a hairdresser, not a career criminal, or so he says--but his early encounter with Joyce isn't quite menacing enough to justify Joyce's later hysteria. More debilitating on opening night was Bass' soft-spokenness--perfectly in character, but many important lines failed to project into the little theater space.

Rachel Carey as Joyce has a fine grip on her character; she is bored with the present, both nostalgic for but a little ashamed of her past, and alternately angry and fearful as she stumbles into whatever future Wilson is preparing for her. Carey also has a firm grip on her lower-class English accent, which can't be said of Bill Phillips as Michael. He's supposed to be Irish, but speaks with no particular accent at all. And his approach to the role is simply too avuncular; to believe Phillips as Michael, you'd have to be able to imagine Walter Cronkite as a wife-beater.

Other elements of the production didn't come off very well on opening night. Some business with a door was confusing--is the door supposed to be imaginary, right next to the desk, or is it a little offstage? A few details of dialog have been altered with no ill effect, but why has the gun Orton specified been changed to a knife? Even more bewildering was the lighting; the house lights remained up, except during scene breaks, while the stage lights flickered only briefly to indicate the end of a scene, then came up full while the actors took their places for the next segment.

Many of these problems can be smoothed out in subsequent performances, but on opening night, The Ruffian on the Stair too often had the audience squirming--for reasons other than Orton's.

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