Depravity is funny. So are greed, betrayal, and rage. Man’s inhumanity to man is appalling, unless it’s uproarious. Nobody likes to admit these things, but their truth is certified every time you laugh at the majestically coiffed killers on The Sopranos or the cat-butchering terrorists of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. And is there any other way to explain Joe Orton?
Forty years ago, the young British playwright took black comedy to unprecedented depths, with writing that was one part Wilde and three parts Satan: incisive, toxic, and breathtakingly funny. Though his later farces Loot and What the Butler Saw have more partisans, for my money, Orton never improved on the pure antisocial delight of his first full-length play.
In Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Orton pricked and deflated the sacred institution of the family. In a shabby house in the middle of a garbage dump, sex-starved, middle-aged Kath takes as a lodger the dangerously handsome young Mr. Sloane. She treats him as a son and then a lover, and intends to continue doing so, despite her brother Ed’s interest in seducing the boy, and the insistence of her father (“the Dadda”) that Sloane is a murderer. Courtesy of the Roundabout, we are now getting a revival of this magnificently dark comedy that really is shocking—but only in its ineptitude.
The problems begin (as I assume the producers did) with Alec Baldwin. As the closeted businessman Ed, he is twitchy, affected, punctilious. “Do you wear leather?” he asks Sloane in an eager hiss. He seems to think he’s serving the material by using a trick he honed on all those stints hosting Saturday Night Live, keeping both eyes on a scene partner while metaphorically winking at the crowd. What would be merely grating in another comedy is deadly here, as Orton demands a lot more than light romping from Ed. “Deny it, boy,” he pleads when he learns that Sloane has impregnated his sister. “Lie to me.” But Baldwin’s Ed is a total stranger to desperation: Why would such a self-satisfied man get worked up about a little rough trade?
In his defense, some of that trouble lies with the rough trade himself. The play depends on a Sloane who is both alluring and unnerving, a pansexual menace, a violent Adonis whose appeal is far darker than his golden good looks. Chris Carmack, best known for his appearances on The O.C. , sure is pretty.
The production doesn’t make just the screen stars look bad; it drags some first-rate stage actors down with them. Jan Maxwell is a radiant beauty with a sly intelligence—gifts that help very little as Kath, the desperate, denture-wearing “sow.” The great Richard Easton has an easy dignity that’s useless when playing Dadda, a casually racist ex-handyman. If you want to credit these choices to any unifying vision, it seems that director Scott Ellis made a fumbling attempt to take the show upmarket, less a piercing depiction of self-serving amorality than a conventional middle-class comedy of manners, one bizarrely punctuated now and then by violence.
Some critics seemed pleased by that approach, declaring the show funny if not menacing. But for Orton, that’s like complimenting a knife for being shiny but not sharp. Even more absurd, Ellis’s deafness to the play’s nuances led some to suggest the material has lost its power to shock. Really? This is a story about a brother and sister who react to the beating death of their half-blind father by helping the murderer conceal his crime, then calculating how best to go on sharing the killer’s sexual favors. If that happened tomorrow, it’d be on the Post’s front page for years.
A comedy this black fails to shock only when it’s played merely for laughs, a danger the playwright knew full well. “Laughter is a serious business,” he wrote, “and comedy a weapon more dangerous than tragedy.” But where is the seriousness of purpose here, the grotesque reality? In the name of Joe Orton, the wickedly brilliant farceur who died as he lived, bludgeoned to death at age 34 by the lover to whom he dedicated this play, where is the fucking vulgarity?