An intermission can be a perilous thing. In the Roundabout revival of “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” it serves the practical purpose of advancing the action several months. Its less welcome effect is to let much of the air out of Joe Orton’s subversive 1964 comedy after a promising first act buoyed by wicked wit and brio. But while Scott Ellis’ grip on the material loosens as the play’s tone grows darker and more menacing, Orton’s delicious dialogue and his gleeful skewering of middle-class morality still offer plenty to savor in the hands of this capable cast.
Orton’s plays are easier to get wrong than right, particularly on this side of the Atlantic — class distinctions are less defined, the subtler nuances of British character tend to be more foreign and the sinister pleasure in milking laughs from truly scabrous behavior and situations often is softened by American actors less willing to bare their fangs. But even in a semi-successful production, comedy doesn’t come much more mordant than this.
Orton’s taboo-busting plays may no longer have the ability to shock that they once had, but even after 42 years, the work of the Carnaby Street-era Oscar Wilde remains audaciously rude and irreverent. In his most famous plays — “Mr. Sloane,” “What the Butler Saw” and “Loot” — Orton vented his scorn for traditional values and establishment order in distinctly different ways than the angry-young-men playwrights who came before him, even when his work shared their drably quotidian, kitchen-sink setting. “Mr. Sloane” marries the tarts-and-vicars school of British farce with twisty plotting and absurdly arch language.
In a play notable for its shameless misogyny, it’s perhaps paradoxical that the sole female character, Kath, often emerges as the most entertaining figure onstage. That’s doubly so with the sublime Jan Maxwell in the role. Last seen hot-wiring her handful of scenes to giddy comic heights in the otherwise laborious “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” she’s one of a rare breed of endlessly resourceful New York theater actors who rarely disappoint.
While she’s too slender, handsome and charismatic to be a natural fit for the nympho hausfrau, Maxwell’s fluttery body language and manic awkwardness are hilarious, her quicksilver shifts between schoolmarmish propriety, girlish flightiness and slutty single-mindedness timed to off-kilter perfection. The baggy cardigan, knee-highs, dowdy hairdo and frequently misplaced dentures certainly help, but it’s Maxwell’s daffy line readings that make the comedy fly.
Like a loony version of a classic Pinter scenario, the play concerns a rootless outsider who enters a home and manipulates the other characters to his advantage, only to have the tables turned by the closing scene.
That outsider is Mr. Sloane (Chris Carmack), a hunky 20-year-old thug offered a room in the home Kath shares with her dotty, cantankerous father, Kemp (Richard Easton). “I’d be happy to have you,” says Kath. And she does, cloaking her lust in maternal warmth. “I’ll be your mamma,” she offers. Then after some heated grappling on the sofa: “I shall be so ashamed in the morning.”
What could have been a mutually agreeable domestic arrangement gets complicated by Kath’s self-inflated closet-queen brother, Ed (Alec Baldwin). Polished and successful, Ed has scrambled up the class ladder, his disdain for his sister inflamed by lingering resentment over her seduction years earlier of his army buddy. When Ed gives Sloane a job as his chauffeur, the equally predatory siblings’ rivalry for the young man’s attentions is set in motion.
But “Dadda” challenges Sloane’s dominion when he recognizes him as the probable murderer of his former employer, a photographer known for his artistic studies of the male form. Kemp at first appears manageable. He has refused for 20 years to speak to Ed (“Shortly after his 17th birthday, I had cause to return home unexpected and found him committing some kind of felony in the bedroom”), and Kath dismisses him as a doddery child. But when the old man — played with amusingly hot-headed befuddlement by Easton — keeps pressing the point, Sloane obtains Ed’s permission to silence him with a beating that goes too far.
Any comedy involving an old codger kicked senseless by a young sexual opportunist demands a directorial touch that’s neither too timid nor too heavy-handed. Ellis’ production has the right physical trappings, notably in Allen Moyer’s chintzy living room set, full of faded furniture and kitschy ornaments. (The house’s location by a dump is unnecessarily highlighted, however, by a photographic frame of trash bags around the proscenium arch; we get the human-debris factor without hammering the point.)
But Ellis pussyfoots around the characters’ venal savagery, making their ruthless ploys to obtain the upper hand increasingly less persuasive. Unlike the director’s bristling revival of “Twelve Angry Men” last season, here his grasp of the material falters and, despite the tight running time, the pace is allowed to flag in act two.
The shortage of bite extends to Carmack. His look might be too contempo Bruce Weber for ’60s England (he’s a former Abercrombie & Fitch model); however, Carmack clearly is a real actor and certainly enough of a tasty morsel to make both Kath and Ed salivate. But while he has the cocky swagger down and is fully capable of working Sloane’s sexual allure, Carmack never makes the threat of physical danger that Sloane represents very real. He’s also better at reacting to the other players than carrying a scene, as is required during his lethal confrontation with Kemp.
Baldwin’s Ed is a little one-note cartoonish — all stiff posture, pursed lips, narrowed eyes and supercilious arched eyebrows, his pompous tones occasionally betraying a glimmer of his lower-middle-class roots. But he’s undeniably funny, especially when coaxing every ounce of ripe innuendo from his initial interrogation of Sloane (“You’re interested in the army, eh?” “Fond of sport?” “Bodybuilding?” “Ever done any wrestling?”), or momentarily hypnotized by the sight of the bending Sloane’s leather-clad butt.
It’s that liberal sprinkling of low comedy and puerile naughtiness with merciless cruelty, appalling behavior, erudite wit and antic plotting that makes Orton’s plays such a lip-smacking delight, not to mention a tricky balancing act.