Entertaining Mr. Sloane
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
March 17, 2006
“I'd the upbringing a nun would envy. Until I was fifteen I was more familiar with Africa than my own body,” is the oft-quoted remark chirped by Kath, the sex-starved landlady in Joe Orton’s 1964 black comedy, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, as she entreats her new tenant to remove his trousers so that she can apply ointment to the superficial wound inflicted upon him by Kemp, her aged father who recognizes him as the young man who offed his former boss. Sloane, a sexy orphaned youth with at least one murder under his belt, would in a play by Pinter be the menacing aggressor holding sway over anyone who might rightfully call the place home. But Orton, whose style here both exploits and explodes that of Pinter, gives us no clear perpetrator.
Logic without conscience, language without consciousness: Kath and Ed (her overrefined brother, who has upwardly mobilized himself from his middle class upbringing) become so smitten with the brawny tenant that their hunger disarms and nearly disables him from causing them appreciable harm (though he does succeed in silencing their old man). But part of what was so shocking in its time was not that audiences anticipated that, in the case of gruesome physical abuse and cold-blooded murder, Justice would be served; they simply expected that the notion of Justice would at least be entertained. No such luck.
The Roundabout’s production, directed by Scott Ellis, is so enjoyable that quite often I did not care to notice the fundamental lack of danger in it. The headliner here is Alec Baldwin, who, as the effete and entrepreneurial Ed, so deftly delivers the repartee that on occasion I laughed in waves at the same line. As the curmudgeonly Kemp, the one true victim here, Richard Easton is flawless: he knows that his elderly status guarantees him no special treatment, but is heartbreakingly baffled when his children repeatedly side with the ruffian on the sofa.
It is Jan Maxwell’s Kath, however, that is the reason this revival is not to be missed. She bears all the accoutrements of the old maid—the housedress, the hairstyle, even the dentures (an enduringly perverse touch)—but her underlying flesh has yet to receive that particular memo. Indeed, her body so jumbles the language of restraint that her forbidden desire speaks its name over and over and over again. Her words are benign pleasantries; her frantic gestures alternately endeavor to seduce and to inspire seduction. And beneath it all: genuine tragic emotion—just sped up a bit.
Allen Moyer’s set (its walls lined with tchochkes; its ceiling stained from leakage) and Michael Krass’s costumes (especially Kath’s sheer nightgown—if Victoria’s Secret and Fruit-of-the-Loom merged…) are bourgeois to the core; the masterful design team also includes Kenneth Posner (lights) and John Gromada (sound). Yes, Scott Ellis can be praised for bringing together such a fine group of artists.
Yet, as I said before, the production still wants something: risk, fright, scandal. The problem lies in the portrayal of the eponymous anti-hero. Chris Carmack is clearly a fine actor, and certainly fills the bill beefcake-wise, but is simply misdirected. Did Ellis wish to play down Sloane’s potentially threatening presence, making it more of a fair fight? If so, he has greatly underestimated the abilities of Maxwell and Baldwin, who eat Carmack alive again and again. Making Sloane too powerful takes away the fun; making him too weak dilutes one of the play’s more disturbing messages: the most cunning criminal is no match for an overzealous victim.