Entertaining thoughts of the late Joe Orton
By Jerry Tallmer
The O boys, Osborne and Orton. Between them, they smashed up British drama, and put it back together again.
John Osborne kicked in the door entered, in anger in 1956. Joe Orton exited, laughing being murdered by an envious lover was the biggest joke of all in 1967.
In May of 1964 a play called Entertaining Mr. Sloane opened at the antiestablishment New Arts Theater, London. Its four characters were Kath, a sloppy, slobbering, sentimentalizing female of middle years and considerable avoirdupois; her brother Ed, a shady, cynical entrepreneur of some sort; their ill-tempered, doddering Dadaa, old Kemp; and a sleek young layabout named Sloane who has rented a room from Kath, and in short order will (a) be tumbled and smothered by her, to his disgust, into an ongoing series of copulations, (b) be given a job as chauffeur by brother Ed, who likewise lusts for the young mans anatomy, (c) will have eliminated suspicious Dadaa from the scene by kicking the old crank to death. Substitute a hammer for a boot and thats how Kenneth Halliwell would three years later remove Orton from their scene.
Amorality, anyone? Have a taste:
KATH (to SLOANE): Baby, my little boy
ED: He aches at every organ.
mamma forgives you.
ED: What have you to offer? Youre fat and the crows-feet under your eyes would make you an object of terror. Pack it in, I tell you. Sawdust up to the navel? Youre nothing to lure any man.
KATH: Is that the truth, Mr. Sloane?
SLOANE: More or less.
KATH: Why didnt you tell me?
ED: How could he tell you? You showed him the gate of Hell every night. He abandoned Hope when he entered there.
KATH: Mr. Sloane, I believed you were a good boy. I find youve deceived me.
SLOANE: You deceived yourself.
KATH: Perhaps. (She holds out her hand.) Kiss my hand, dear, in the manner of the theatre. (He kisses her hand.) I shall cry. (She feels for a handkerchief.)
ED: On with the waterworks
What a cruel performance youre giving. Like an old tart grinding to her climax.
Did Orton see himself in the Mr. Sloane he created on paper for the stage?
Oh, definitely, I think so, said Scott Ellis, director of the Entertaining Mr. Sloane that, with Alec Baldwin as the randy brother, is now in previews toward its March 16 opening as a Roundabout Theater production at the Laura Pels on 46th Street. Ortons whole sexuality and bisexuality are in it. Sloane is very much like Orton, who was a quite charming and attractive man.
Ellis, who is one of Broadway and Off-Broadways most prolific directors and has been for 25 years his shows just this season and last include The Little Dog Laughed, Mr. Marmalade, A Touch of the Poet, A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, The Constant Wife, and A Streetcar Named Desire had, as it happens, never seen Entertaining Mr. Sloane on stage or screen, had never directed an Orton, and had never worked with the Alec Baldwin who came to him last year and suggested they do this play.
Alec said hed always loved Orton; that one of the first plays hed ever been in was Ortons Loot. I went and read Entertaining Mr. Sloane and loved it. Loved the characters and the darkness under the farce, and Ortons whole ability to straddle between the darkness, the realistic, and farce. The way he balanced all that. These are not cartoon characters by any means.
Ellis gave one copy of John Lahrs biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears source of the excellent 1987 Stephen Frears film starring Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina, and Vanessa Redgrave to each of his four actors: Chris Carmack as Sloane, Jan Maxwell as Kath, Richard Easton as Kemp, Baldwin as Ed.
Ortons fame that is, fame in his own lifetime was packed into three short years. Incredibly short, says Ellis. Think what might have happened if he hadnt been snapped off at age 34.
Scott Ellis, born in Washington, D.C., raised in Fairfax, Virginia he only lately lost his lawyer father emerged from the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, came to New York, auditioned for the first Broadway production of Grease, and has been here ever since, the first 10 years as an actor.
He was in The Rink with Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera, music by Kander & Ebb, which led in turn to the first show Ellis ever directed, Flora the Red Menace, with Ms. Minnelli. The first show of his that this theatergoer ever took in was the superb little Kander & Ebb album And the World Goes Round, starring Karen Ziemba, upstairs at the Westside Theater on 43rd Street.
This coming summer out in Los Angeles he will be staging Kander & Ebbs Curtains, a backstage murder mystery set in Boston in the 1950s, with a new book by Rupert Holmes stepping in for the late Peter Stone.
What made actor Scott Ellis think he could turn himself into director Scott Ellis?
I dont know. (Pause.) Stupidity, (Pause.) Thought Id give it a try. (Pause.) I liked it.
Sixty shows later, he still does.