A wrecking ball provides an ominous part of the curved backdrop of William Dudley’s overly busy set for the new London revival of “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” but one thing is sure: Joe Orton’s 1964 play is indestructible. Given Terry Johnson’s seriously unbalanced staging of the piece, that’s a double tribute to Orton’s irredeemably cynical and clever vision, which apparently still packs enough of a wallop to elicit snorts of “Jesus” and “Oh my God” at regular intervals from the American students around me.
Those who have a prior acquaintanceship with this author might wish for a quartet of players more attuned to one another’s best interests, not to mention those of a play that lets no one out of its defiantly un-PC grip. But even as it is, it’s hard not to feel all over again the liberating instincts of a dramatist who can send a character’s false teeth flying — and, well before that, an audience’s inhibitions, too.
Not much is reined-in about the sexual politics on display, as sister and brother Kath (Alison Steadman) and Eddie (Clive Francis) at first covertly — and then brazenly — vie for the affections of Sloane (Neil Stuke), the 24-year-old layabout who is sharing their house, and more. At once fantasists and fetishists, Kath and Sloane embark on a liaison that casts the loveless, older Kath as the leather-trousered boy’s mother one minute and available whore the next.
“He was rough with me,” she moans, though not half as rough as life has been — or will be — to her. For all that’s Pinteresque about the play’s situation (cf. “The Birthday Party,” a play with its own middle-aged landlady) and its language (a riff on “colored people” could have been lifted right out of “The Caretaker”), it’s the prevailing mercilessness of “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” that really sets one in mind of Pinter. Orton’s language at its most ornate may possess a Wildean zing, but beneath its baroque qualities lies an understanding of human baseness that would be deeply chilling if the writing weren’t so buoyed by wit.
Bringing with him a possibly murderous background, Sloane is the play’s inevitable pivot, a man-boy at once thuggish and sexy. Hair bleached blond, blessed with a smile capable of curdling into a sneer, Stuke drifts in and out of the role far less confidently than Sloane drifts into this working-class trio’s lives. (Bryan Pringle completes the lineup with a pitch-perfect perf as the siblings’ aging “Dada.”) Stuke is a good actor without being a dangerous one, and it doesn’t help that he seems too old for the part. Playing the putative criminal who has become one by play’s end, Stuke seems to be playacting throughout rather than inhabiting the role from the inside.
That’s also true, to some extent, of Steadman’s braying star turn as Kath, a showy role that this actress turns into a distant cousin of her northern English harridan of a mum in “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice,” for which she won an Olivier. She’s a fearsome sight to behold wiggling her breasts about and sticking her rear end in Sloane’s face, the two sliding into baby talk at that precise moment when their intentions are most adult. What’s missing is a vivid sense of the desperation that fuels the hapless Kath and that links all the characters in the play. Not for the first time, Steadman seems more intent on putting on a show than fully integrating herself into one.
Thank heavens, then, for Francis, a terrific actor who more or less walks away with the play, whether urging Sloane to lie to him or upping the innuendo stakes to within an inch of the play’s caustic life. He’s at his most quietly bilious in an amazing scene near the end in which Eddie humiliates Kath in front of the mirror, even as Francis makes one continually aware of the effort that Eddie expends on maintaining his dapper sheen. (At times, the actor looks vaguely like Robert Duvall.) He’s imbibed the spirit of the piece, and so, I’m happy to report, have the Arts Theater managers, who deserve credit for urging the audience over the loudspeaker system to put their “mobile phones on to vibrate.”