As is made clear in the current movie "Prick Up Yours Ears," Joe Orton had a wicked imagination. But his plays are commonly hampered--at least on these shores--by actors who haven't a clue as to how to do them.
Not at the Mark Taper Forum. I've never seen an Orton play so surely handled as "Entertaining Mr. Sloane." Clearly, director John Tillinger has a grip on Orton, both on his pagan mind-set and on the pressure with which his plays have to be performed.
It's not that the actors have to go fast. But they have to be there at every minute, with plenty of breath when Orton uncorks one of his long mock-fancy roulades. It takes an ear, and it takes teamwork. Unless everyone hears the beat, it all falls apart.
This means hiring actors with a technique; players who can get a lot done in two or three seconds, while seeming to take all the time they need. "Sloane" isn't what you would call a clean play, but you'll never see a more cleanly acted one. Tillinger's company (Barbara Bryne, Maxwell Caulfield, Gwyllum Evans and Joseph Maher) are playing Mozart up there.
Orton's characters are also given considerable humanity. That's not a word we associate with this playwright. His biographer John Lahr ("Prick Up Your Ears" is based on Lahr's life of Orton) has called his characters "gargoyles." "Sloane's" central situation is typically grotesque. A teen-age stud (Caulfield) gets away with kicking an old man to death (Evans) because he's lusted-after by the old man's grown-up children (Bryne and Maher.)
This could have made a Jacobean tragedy. Orton makes a contemporary satyr play out of it, downplaying the violence and up-playing the sex. What strikes you in this production (it would have pleased our playwright) is what innocents his characters are, in their own minds.
This is something different, and more interesting, than playing them as conscious hypocrites. Everybody in this production feels quite put upon by life and perfectly justified in behaving as he or she does. If we only knew what they had to put up with!
Caulfield's character, for instance, isn't a bit sinister. He is a cry-baby who simply goes off his chump from time to time. You can't blame a fellow for that. It's because his Mum and Dad didn't raise him right. An improper home environment, like. (Orton's people love to pick up jargon from the telly).
Similarly, there's nothing blowzy about Bryne's landlady. She dresses as neat as a pin (Bill Walker designed her wrap-around) and you could eat off her floors. (John Lee Beatty designed her triumphantly dreary parlor.) Such a person does not lust afer under-aged streetboys. Her "motherly" feelings simply got out of control.
Maher is equally respectable as the brother, tying himself into knots not to acknowledge his attraction to young Mr. Sloane, at the same time madly putting forward signals to ascertain his availability. If Maher were any more convoluted, he'd look like a question mark.
Evans as the old man is unrespectable from the start, a crabby codger who dislikes handsome strangers on sight and is perfectly capable of attacking them with a toasting fork. One's heart goes out to him, but in this house a habitual truth-teller can't last long.
What fools we mortals be! says Orton. Maybe if we were more straightforward about our kinks, there'd be less need to go around hitting old parties on the head. But it's hard to find a message in "Entertaining Mr. Sloane." It's a Punch and Judy show more than a morality play. And this is a wickedly accomplished production of it.