Volume 18 • Issue 42 | March 3 - 9, 2006

Theater

ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE
By Joe Orton
Directed by Scott Ellis
Now in previews; opens March 16
Roundabout Theater production
Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street
(212-719-9393; roundabouttheatre.org/pels.htm)

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 man’s anatomy, (c) will have eliminated suspicious Dadaa from the scene by kicking the old crank to death. Substitute a hammer for a boot and that’s 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.

KATH: … mamma forgives you.

ED: What have you to offer? You’re 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? You’re nothing to lure any man.

KATH: Is that the truth, Mr. Sloane?

SLOANE: More or less.

KATH: Why didn’t 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 you’ve 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 you’re 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. “Orton’s 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-Broadway’s 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 he’d always loved Orton; that one of the first plays he’d ever been in was Orton’s ‘Loot.’ I went and read ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ and loved it. Loved the characters and the darkness under the farce, and Orton’s 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 Lahr’s 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.

Orton’s 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 hadn’t 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 & Ebb’s “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 don’t know.” (Pause.) “Stupidity,” (Pause.) “Thought I’d give it a try.” (Pause.) “I liked it.”

Sixty shows later, he still does.


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