It's tempting to think Joe Orton's reputation was enhanced by the fact that he lived fast and died young. Sexually and chemically adventurous, Orton was killed at the age of 34 in 1967—bludgeoned to death with a hammer by his gay lover, who then wrote a suicide note (check Orton's sexually explicit diaries, he advised those who would investigate the murder), swallowed 22 Nembutals, and died.
But the fact remains that Orton was a master of black comedy and a very good playwright who was getting better. His skewerings of middle-class morality still sting with a subversive quality that few others have captured. Before him, Shaw and Wilde were brilliant but gentlemanly; so too Miller. Orton was brilliant and mean. Making fun of the middle class has become so hip it's no longer hip—there's nothing more bourgeois than the fear of being bourgeois, Andy Warhol wrote around the time of Orton's death—but Orton's viciousness still resonates and delights.
Unfortunately, this production of his first play, Entertaining Mr. Sloane rarely does either. Fault not director Martin Benson or his quite capable cast. Compared with Orton's later efforts, such as Loot and What the Butler Saw, the play is weak, talky and unnecessarily convoluted.
Mr. Sloane (J. Todd Adams) comes to rent a room from Kath (a flawless Jane Carr). The landlady is eager to rent—and just as eager to get into Sloane's pants. Her doddering father, Kemp (Hal Landon Jr.), knows the young lodger's dark past but is too feeble to explain. Meanwhile, Kath's domineering brother Ed (Simon Billig) arrives to kick Sloane out but finds he's just as attracted.
If the play is "about" anything, it's about repressed sexuality and how comfortable we are in a state of denial. There are some fairly sharp criticisms of English middle-class morality, along with a shocking climax that ends the play on a brutal, grimly funny twist. But it takes too long to get there.
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This production does as much as one can hope to do with the material Orton left them. Carr, who worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, is a wonderful actress, obviously imbued with all the class and sophistication that a classically trained English actress should possess but also quite willing and capable to rut around in Orton's sick little world.
Billig also renders a fascinating performance. He has always portrayed reactive characters—troubled sons dealing with flawed fathers in Freedomland, All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. Here, he plays a manipulative, perverse character. While he comes off as contrived at times (relying as much on stock physicalities as inner truth), it's still fascinating to watch a very good actor get a chance to work from an entirely different creative palette.
But as good as this cast is, the play still feels like a museum piece that, were it not written by Orton, probably wouldn't be produced. But because it was written by one of the craftiest crafters of black comedy, as dry and stale as it may sometimes feel, there's still an undeniable whiff of blood that lingers in the air.
ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through Oct. 22. $26-$47.