Joe Orton’s rarely staged BBC radio play, The Ruffian on the Stair, is being given the royal treatment by Hicks Street Productions at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Brian Foyster’s set design is one of the most elaborate you will see in a Fringe show and perfectly sets the scene for the action that takes place in a London bedsit circa 1964. The one-hour dramedy is typically Ortonian in its working class characters and milieu. The bedsit is shared by Mike (Foyster), who claims to be an ex-boxer from Ireland now living on the dole, and Joyce (Sile Bermingham), a former prostitute who plied her trade under various aliases before settling down with Mike. As the action starts, Joyce reminds Mike it’s their second anniversary as a couple. He doesn’t seem to care one way or another and is soon off to a meeting in a public restroom about a possible job. An article Joyce reads in the paper about a tattooed young man who was run down by a white van distresses Mike just a bit. After he leaves, Wilson (Reed Michael Campbell) shows up at Joyce’s door looking for a room to rent. Even though Joyce thinks he made a mistake, she finally admits Wilson to the apartment and even serves him some tea. We discover it was Wilson’s older brother Frank, with whom he shared an incestuous relationship, who was run down by a van, a van that might belong to Mike. Wilson doesn’t really want revenge; he just wants to join his brother in the grave and has his last will state that. Wilson terrifies Joyce but when she relates her terror to Mike, he seems unfazed by it. When Wilson returns, he charms Mike by claiming to be an Irish Catholic, just like Mike. There is sexual tension as well as a whiff of violence in the air as the threesome interact. Even goldfish aren’t safe in this toxic atmosphere.
Ruffian has a lot in common with Orton’s first full-length play, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, which premiered on stage a few months before Ruffian first aired on BBC radio. The working class characters, the sexually ambidextrous young man—in Sloane he seduces a brother and sister, in Ruffian he uses his charm on a couple living as husband and wife. Orton, always the rascal rebel, rants and raves against British society, the Catholic Church and morality and sexual roles in general. Mark Kemble has deftly directed his trio of actors and the result is a laugh-filled, gasp-inducing romp. Foyster perfectly executes the seemingly distracted Mike while Bermingham inhabits Joyce with all femininity and motherly love an aging prostitute can muster. Campbell imbues Wilson with fresh, young exuberance and sexual energy. The three play off each other like careening billiard balls. Don’t miss this chance to see a rarely produced gem by the master theatrical anarchist, Joe Orton. I sat next to two young men who had never experienced Orton before and were now intrigued and eager to see more.