Playwrights frequently believe their work should be staged only in a particular way, and frequently they're wrong. Among those who have been right is Joe Orton, the British satirist brutally murdered early in his career by his lover, a mediocrity who couldn't stand Orton's success. In his diary not long before his death, Orton noted that "Loot," eventually to be one of his most popular plays, "is clearly not written naturalistically, but it must be directed and acted with absolute realism. No 'stylization,' no 'camp.' "
Chris Griffin, who has directed Orton's "The Erpingham Camp" for Cherry Red Productions, would have done well to heed that advice: It applies to every Orton play. Instead, he's packed stylization and camp into every corner of the subversive comedy. The production, which opened last weekend, is neither nimble nor funny.
Mr. Erpingham (Doug Krentzlin) runs a leisure camp for adults. Things are all veddy proper and pleasant until Riley (Anton Dudley), an ambitious staffer, assassinates the entertainment director to get his job. But then Riley botches his first night in the new position, slapping a pregnant camper, whose husband retaliates first against Riley and then against the camp. The rest of the campers rise in revolt with him.
Obviously plot isn't the strong point here. Rather, Orton's satire derives its force from repeatedly contrasting English reserve and propriety--played realistically--against the idiosyncratic absurdity of his dialogue. Says Mr. Erpingham, in just one of the text's many inspired moments, "We can't have members of the staff taking human life. We're not equipped to deal with it." For Orton irony was not, as it so often is now, a hip pose, but a wonderfully vicious means to savage corrupt authority and dopey groupthink.
Griffin, however, has slapped together an evening of kitschy vaudeville. The actors prance and mug with manic self-consciousness, frequently looking at us as if to say, "Hey! Isn't this wacky??" This can certainly work with the right material, such as "Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack," Cherry Red's previous offering, which was sublimely repellent and hilarious. But with "Erpingham," the result is that instead of playing off the script's absurdist wit--no doubt Griffin's intention--the production dumbs it down.
The Erpingham Camp, by Joe Orton. Directed by Chris Griffin. Sound design by Brad Dismukes. With Susan Downs, Michael Price, Nobi Nakanishi, Amy Black, Ian Allen, Jean Miller and Phil Sawicki. Presented by Cherry Red Productions through July 17 at Studio 1019, 1019 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-675-3071.
CAPTION: Knock it off already: Anton Dudley slaps Amy Black in Joe Orton's "The Erpingham Camp."