Lanie Robertson’s Nasty Little Secrets, which played at Primary Stages a decade ago, is back, once again confirming his talent for freely imagined drama about real people. Now the topic is the playwright Joe Orton – and Kenneth Halliwell, his lover, roommate, and murderer. As the author states, he did not use John Lahr’s well-known biography or its movie version as his source; like Cézanne, he “painted a dream of apples” rather than apples.
The salient facts more or less remain. The very young working-class actor John (later Joe) Orton meets the somewhat older Ken Halliwell, and they settle down as lovers and artists in a small Islington flat. Ken makes obscene collages and writes unpublished novels; John, whom he has educated via library books, is an aspiring playwright. They smuggle out those books and return them defaced with priapic, pederastic, hermaphroditic collages, funny but scandalous. Apprehended, each lover gets six months in a separate jail, whence Orton emerges despising his prison shrink, Halliwell loving his.
Joe is blissfully unreconstructed; Ken insists he is no longer “a queer” and will change his life. But they continue together in what Halliwell (I cite The Orton Diaries) called a Strindbergian Dance of Death relationship. Even so, it might have dragged on, had not Orton become a hugely successful playwright, media darling, and social lion, while Halliwell, who felt he had created him, and who indeed helped shape those plays, was being bypassed by success and told (though not yet by Joe) to get lost. This was too much to bear. Ken grabbed a hammer and killed the sleeping 34-year-old Joe with numerous blows to the head, then, swallowing some pills, died much more genteelly.
Nasty Little Secrets is remarkable in many ways. Although the goings-on are explicitly and wildly homosexual, even the most rampant heterosexual can empathize with Joe and Ken, so funnily fractious, inveiglingly witty, ultimately vulnerable, and arrantly, errantly human. Robertson is sympathetic without idolatry, graphic without obviousness, and theatrically astute in using no more than four actors to create a world. Further, he interpolates sardonic vaudeville skits, commenting on the action with song and dance, a device harking back at least to Joe Egg but used here with biting individuality. Moreover, a British subject is treated with a native’s ease.
Casey Childs’s direction, William Barclay’s set, Debra Stein’s costumes, Phil Monat’s lighting, and David Van Tieghem’s original music and sound are unfailingly on target. The acting, accents included, is exemplary. Matthew Mabe and Craig Fols are a flawless Joe and Ken, as sensitive to subtle social nuances and psychological differences as to the intricacies of emphasis and innuendo. As their policeman nemesis, Carnes, Bryan Clark is the comic Javert from hell, and David McCallum, as a semifictitious aide to the great theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay, Orton’s promoter, is proper and slippery in perfect proportion. If I have a quarrel, it’s with the ending, first excessively poetic, then questionably jolly. But never mind: Make Nasty Little Secrets your happy big discovery.