New York audiences got their first opportunity to relish British bad-boy playwright Joe Orton’s devilishly cynical 1964 play in 1965. They didn’t relish it for long as it only lasted 13 performances plus four previews. The play’s uneasy mixture of mirth and menace, its uniquely British view of the middle class, its caustic dialogue, and its willfully amoral perspective are tough assignments for any American theater company. The Roundabout Theater Company, under Scott Ellis’s direction, has got it just about perfect. It is always comforting to hear an audience laugh at the right moments and demonstrate their pleasure and approval for all the perverse and peculiar doings that propel this play. It is even more comforting when a critic feels compelled to join in that response.
As one of the more notorious politically incorrect playwrights of the mid 20th century, Orton has earned our cautious appreciation with such subsequent and even more outrageously nutty comedies as “What the Butler Saw” and “Loot.” But “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” stands apart for its rather shameless scorning of women. It is to Orton’s credit that he is a master at framing his rage and frustrations in farce. The players prove to be not only in tune with the outre nature of Orton’s four main characters, but also appear as sublimely effective farceurs.
The play is propelled by a tug of war between a middle-aged brother and sister, as they both compete for the sexual favors of an opportunistic 24-year-old male lodger. But it is primarily buoyed by its delectable dialogue and extravagantly loony characters, including that of their aging, disagreeable father, who lives with the sister. Jan Maxwell, who last season sparked the sputtering musical “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” is wonderful as Kath, a brazenly self-indulgent woman, who has no qualms about pursuing and fulfilling her sexual fantasies in earnest. Maxwell proves to be an unlimited source of comedic ingenuity, as she flip-flops hilariously from motherly doting to seducing predator. Pushing her character’s idiosyncratic behavior to its most farcical limits, she delivers every line with a deliberately twisted sensibility and uses her body with almost cartoon-like abandon. One can deduce that no lodger had ever been safe in her home.
Alec Baldwin plays the brother, Ed, as a pretentious poseur, whose closeted sexuality is slyly yet definitively observed as gentile tics, quirks, and squirms. Ed’s foxy agenda in wooing the easily corruptible Mr. Sloane is veiled not only in Baldwin’s uptight, tight-lipped British-ized performance but in the way he is able to deploy Orton’s most flippant bon mots with a casual elan. He defines Ed, a slick and successful entrepreneur, as a man of finely-honed affectations and as a subtle manipulator who knows how to get the upper hand. Baldwin may have seen days when he could have played a hunky Mr. Sloane. Notwithstanding his misstep a few seasons back in the revival of “Twentieth Century,” Baldwin is grandly earning his stripes as a commendable, and still good-looking, character actor.
There is no denying either Mr. Sloane’s attractive presence or the sense of danger that he brings with him into the home. Chris Carmack resides believably in the role of the duplicitous drifter. The most intriguing part of the play is to watch Mr. Sloane unwittingly become the pawn of the two people he has unwisely presumed to be easy marks. However insinuatingly clever are Carmack’s scenes with Baldwin and Maxwell, Carmack shows his true colors and his most dangerous side to Richard Easton, who plays Kemp, the siblings’ grumpy but not altogether dopey “Dadda.” Kemp’s discovery that Sloane is the murderer of his former boss leads to violence that Ed willfully condones. It seems that Kemp has not spoken to Ed since his 17th birthday, when he caught him “committing some kind of felony in the bedroom.”
Notwithstanding the play’s full frontal attack on sexual politics and social mores, it is the sublime balance of naughtiness and nastiness that makes this play so entertaining. Director Ellis seems to have had little difficulty keeping faith with a playwright who daringly derived as much inspiration from Harold Pinter as he did from Oscar Wilde. The interior of the little home in the vicinity of junkyard outside of London is credibly evoked by designer Allen Moyer. But rightfully, it’s the incredibly dark and entertaining satire that fills this space. A ripping good show. ***
“Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” through May 21, Roundabout Theater Company at the Laura Pels Theater, at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street. $61.25 to $71.25. 212-719-1300.