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A CurtainUp Review
Nasty Little Secrets
By Les Gutman
Love stories with tragic endings are, of course, nothing new. Neither, God knows, are plays about the private lives of gay playwrights. The truncated life of Joe Orton (Matthew Mabe) has been the subject of an excellent book, John Lahr's Prick Up Your Ears (also a film) and has been exposed in intricate detail with the publication of his diaries (edited "to avoid libel" by Lahr). But Lanie Robertson's rich play about Joe Orton, Nasty Little Secrets, much like Orton himself, finds its own resonant voice.
Orton's story is remarkable, but it is not his alone. He began his adult life as an uneducated nobody with a criminal record. It ended sixteen years later, by which time he was a celebrated playwright (in his words, a "somebody"). He spent these years living in a tiny Islington apartment (really little more than just a room) with Kenneth Halliwell (Craig Fols). The educated Halliwell was his lover, his teacher, his inspiration, the sine qua non of his writing and, also, his killer. From the day they met, one can chart Orton's upward trajectory, and Halliwell's downward slide. Creating Orton the literary figure was the single great achievement of Halliwell's life.
Nasty Little Secrets explores their life together, touching only incidentally on its public aspects or on Orton's extramural sex life (about which the diaries say just about all that there is to say). Robertson tethers this private life to the rest of the world through two characters of his own creation, an unscrupulous literary agent, Willoughby (David McCallum) and an equally unattractive, officious police inspector, Carnes (Bryan Clark). Both are infused with Orton's pervasive cynicism about the virtuousness of the respectable classes. What we learn is not so much how master prankster Orton becomes Britain's preeminent farceur, but rather how society intruded in and destroyed the relationship that nurtured his literary persona. This can be explored to extraordinary depth because of the intimate detail revealed in Orton's diaries. (Not included in the play is the contents of Halliwell's suicide note which read, "If you read his diary, all will be explained. P.S. Especially the latter part.") As Orton would have wished, it is a lesson that turns a mirror back into the faces of its contemporary audience.
Primary Stages has afforded Nasty Little Secrets a strong production. (This is the tenth anniversary of the original, also at Primary Stages.) Artistic director Casey Childs allows the Orton/Halliwell story to be viewed as a farce, which is precisely how Orton himself saw it. His plays were a farcical evocation of his life with Halliwell.
Childs directs with much exuberance, but sensitivity and restraint. Randomly sequenced scenes begin with Orton's hysterical visit from Willoughby in search of a not-very-fair agency agreement. It then moves back to Orton's first visit to Halliwell's apartment and then forward again. All well paced and staged, it is lubricated with court testimony by Willoughby and Carnes. Sex, violence and drugs are not glossed over, but they are not permitted to divert attention. Only an overly-long vaudeville farce (no doubt intended to evoke Orton's style) diminishes the play's momentum, and seems poorly chosen.
Scenes are deliciously separated (and sometimes accompanied) by David Van Tieghem's perfectly chosen "period" songs (meaning, mostly, the Beatles), which have been choreographed with exceptional charm by Kent Gash. Mention should also be made of Brian T. Whitehill's projections, which had the audience laughing at audacious Halliwell/Orton collages (manufactured with pictures "borrowed" and "edited" from the local branch library, the crime for which the two were sent to jail). William Barclay's sets are particularly effecive, with long deep passageways at either side of the open-walled apartment, with the former doubling as witness boxes as well as jail cells.
The acting is uniformly good, and particularly so on the part of Matthew Mabe's Orton. Mabe renders Orton with great relish and integrity, superficially effervescent and yet only partly concealing a residual defensiveness. His performance is not high camp, but when he jumps for joy, it is unbridled.
Fols reprises his role from the original production. He callibrates Halliwell's descent -- falling victim to his envy of Orton's sucesses, the indignities society meted out to him and his own lack of self worth. McCallum is the picture of sleazy respectability, and Clark is fine as the overanxious equivalent of Hugo's Javert..
Orton could have been imagining his future when he wrote, "Events move in one direction and cumulatively." Perhaps Robertson would care to add: "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear."