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A CurtainUp Review
Entertaining Mr. Sloane
By Elyse Sommer
1. Has it really been almost fifty years since Joe Orton shocked the socks off people with his fledgling black comedy, Entertaining Mr. Sloane? 2. Have enough years zoomed by for the dark and handsome Alec Baldwin to be too ripe to play the hunky title character and be a better fit the part of Ed, the oily entrepreneur, misogynist and closeted homosexual? 3. Have those jet-propelled years and a less easy to shock public taken the bite out of Orton's send-up of the middle class morality of the 1960s and made the play less entertaining? The answer is yes, yes -- and, in the last instance, yes and no.
To be specific about those fly by years, Entertaining Mr. Sloane first hit the London stage in 1964 and sent this new style angry young playwright's career soaring -- only to bring it to a freakish halt just three years later when the thirty-four-year-old Orton was bludgeoned to death by his lover. It's Orton's premature death that limits any assessment of his work to revivals, without the chance to consider plays like Entertaining Mr. Sloane in the light of more mature work reflecting the post sixties social changes.
As for Mr. Baldwin, he is indeed old enough to be a more suitable Ed than Sloane. The good news about this is that the way he manages to combine Ed's prosperous businessman's propriety and intense misogyny with his purulent interests is a howl. His lustful fantasy of making newcomer Chris Carmack's Sloane his boy toy is hilariously obvious the minute he takes in young Sloane's gorgeously sculpted pecs and tight butt. You won't find a more trechant example of lust at first sight on another New York stage.
To digress for a mini-synopsis in case you're unfamiliar with the plot: Ed is the occasional visitor to the home shared by his child-like, middle-aged sister Kath (Jan Maxwell) and the doddering old Dadda (Richard Easton) who's refused to speak to him since happening upon him (on his 17th birthday) "committing some kind of felony in the bedroom." The title character is a young drifter who has been brought home by the love-starved Kath as a lodger on whom she will bestow the privileges of a beloved son as well as some decidedly non-familial benefits. Sloane, craftily plays off the brother and sister's lust for him to his own advantage, but the twists and turns in this little triumvirate's interactions leads to a deadly power play that ends badly for Dadda (who recognized Sloane from a previous unsavory encounter) and brings out the worst in everyone.
Though Orton's countrymen responded with excitement to his mordantly satiric style, Entertaining Mr. Sloane was too shocking for Broadway audiences. Its one and only Broadway production (1965) went to an early grave after just two weeks and had only one other New York production ten years ago, a limited run at Off-Broadway's Classic Stage (I didn't review it as it pre-dates CurtainUp but it was an excellent production with Brian Murray as Ed). Which brings us to the question of whether Entertaining Mr. Sloane still gives you plenty of bite for your buck. Compared to The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh and Adam Rapp's Red Light Winter, . . . Sloane nowadays offers more belly laughs than bite.
But remember, that last question was two-tiered, with the second part pertaining to whether the play lives up to the word "entertaining" of the title -- and here the answer is a resounding yes. While the play's shock value may have diminished, playwrights who have stepped into Orton's shoes and who often rely on the excessive use of once censored expressions make Orton's highly quotable dialogue sparkle more brightly than ever. It takes a lot of in your face language and on stage sex to match the impact of brother Ed disdainfully telling his sister what he thinks of her seduction of Sloane: "You showed him the gate of Hell every night, He abandoned hope when he entered there."
The still pungent dialogue and director Ellis' emphasis on the farcical aspects of the humor make for a play that's no longer quite what its author intended, but one that is nevertheless highly entertaining. Ultimately, that emphasis, abetted by the performances of an intriguing and able cast, infuse the black as black satire turned entertaining farce with enough nastiness to keep the play's teeth -- if not firmly implanted, at least from the fate that befalls Kath's dentures.
While Baldwin is probably the cast member with the biggest box office draw, the performance giving the play a new twist to offset that diminished bite, is Jan Maxwell. If you've ever seen this actress, she's an elegant blonde though you wouldn't know it from the way she looks and acts here. While not fat and dowdy as Kath was written, Maxwell really gets the middle class primness and the pathos as well as the conniving streak lurking beneath the comical child-like flutter and sexual avarice. She cooks and knits and seems to believe herself when she tells Sloane " I've had the upbringing a nun would envy. Until the age of fifteen I was more familiar with Africa than my own body." She's also a riotous seductress who, when she trades her ugly print dress and Hoover apron for a diaphanous black nightgown remarks: "The light is showing me up. I blame it on the manufacturers. They make garments so thin nowadays, you'd think they intended to provoke a rape."
As the soft-skinned, muscled young Adonis with whom both siblings are smitten, Carmack, a TV actor and model, looks the part and makes a good showing as an actor. If he's not quite as devious or menacing as called for by the role, that's probably all part of the director's playing down the darkness and revving the play up as a comedy of bad taste.
Richard Easton, who rounds out this dysfunctional family and who I've never seen give anything less than a stellar performance, doesn't disappoint. As the father whose insistence on exposing Sloane, his final scene is one that remains dark and disturbing.
While the Playbill cover showing Baldwin, Carmack and Maxwell in bed together is a teaser, the play itself is given strong and authentic support by the design team. Allen Moyer's tacky, knick-filled set is cleverly framed with a proscenium on which images of the junkyard surrounding this home are projected. Michael Krass's costumes are on the mark, especially Sloane's leather chauffeur outfit. Sound designer John Gramada supplies oral reminders of the period with peppy 60s pop tunes.
The original three acts have been conflated into two acts. While there's a noticeable bump after the intermission that slows up the generally fast pacing -- Ellis gets things back up to speed by the time the only figures left standing are the little figurines on the shelves all around the walls of this genteel madhouse.
Lnks to Other Orton Plays Reviewed at CurtainUp
Entertaining Mr. Sloane in London Loot
Nasty Little Secrets
What the Butler Saw
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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