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Values Conscious

Orton's plays may seem tame now, but they still have a message and some jolt.


Loss of innocence--or at least the loss of a veneer of innocence--is what primarily befell society during the 1960s.

The English playwright Joe Orton was a shock trooper in the attack that overthrew many of the comforting verities that were easy for so many to believe during World War II and the first 20 years of the Cold War.

In those days, good and evil were clearly delineated, and it was obvious that the good guys were "us." Our values and institutions, our duly appointed and elected authorities were unassailable edifices of honesty, integrity and enlightenment. At least until the assassination of John F. Kennedy late in 1963 and the U.S. escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965, that was taken as a matter of faith. "Father Knows Best" was on TV, and it reassured viewers that competent and benevolent authority was in control.

In 1964 and 1966, Orton emerged with "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" and "Loot," the two satiric plays produced during a lifetime bloodily cut short at age 34. The crux of both plots could be summed up as "father knows too much." In each play, an inconvenient dad, a remnant of old-guard thinking, is done in by his own children because he has become an obstacle to their sexual satisfaction or their prospects for cashing in on an illicit monetary score.

Before his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, took a hammer to the sleeping playwright in a 1967 murder-suicide, Orton made his name with elegantly stated ridicule that poked holes in what we nowadays call "traditional values."

Two of the Big Three plays that form Orton's legacy are playing locally this week, with "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" beginning previews tonight at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa and "Loot" winding up its run at the International City Theatre in Long Beach. (The posthumously produced "What the Butler Saw" is Orton's third major work.)

The job of chiseling away a veneer of propriety that Orton helped begin has been accomplished so thoroughly that the old shock monger, who outraged critics and audiences during his day, is no longer shocking. But he remains ever-relevant, say the directors of the current Orton productions, and his deft black humor, full of casually tossed-off epigrams that hit their targets like darts, remains a rare theatrical achievement.

For Martin Benson, the South Coast artistic director who is directing "Sloane," revisiting Orton is a way of returning to the theater's roots. Like Orton, SCR debuted in 1964, and Benson believes its 1967 production of "Sloane" was the first staging of an Orton play in Southern California.

Redoing "Sloane" is a way to trace a seminal influence on playwrights of today, "to find their genesis," Benson said last week. He was going to go with "The Homecoming," by Harold Pinter, also from the mid-1960s and also about the outrageous sexual corruption within a family. But then he picked up "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" and started laughing, and he knew it was a play he wanted to do right away.

Sloane is a handsome, charming and sexually magnetic young drifter with no scruples; it's not that he is intentionally evil, just that his id never acquired a superego. His every thought and action aims for maximal personal satisfaction with minimal expenditure of effort. Unless, of course, it becomes necessary to remove an impediment.

Sloane is taken in as a boarder by the middle-aged Kath, a wounded and lonely woman who swarms and smothers and conquers him in a campaign of sexual need and maternal instinct gone amok. Sloane slips into a very comfy arrangement in which he services and dominates Kath and plays hard-to-get with her brother Ed, a self-professed man of principle who gives Sloane a cushy job in hopes of winning by slow seduction what Kath already has seized. The siblings' "dadda," as Kath calls her father, becomes highly inconvenient to the three other characters--and therefore easily disposable when he stands in the way of their single-minded drives for gratification.

Orton gives the lust-driven Kath and Ed some sympathetic qualities that make the amoral outcome a surprise. Benson said one of his aims is to humanize the characters so audiences can recognize the neediness that drives them.

"Loot" is a pure farce in which greed and unscrupulousness pull virtually everybody through its madcap plot. A bank robber hides his stolen cash in the casket of his just-expired mum; the body gets rearranged like a piece of furniture and desecrated in gruesomely hilarious ways as he and his partner in crime try to conceal the loot from a snooping police inspector. The detective's methods are even more questionable than those unearthed in the LAPD's Rampart Division scandal.

The play's paterfamilias is the one figure who believes in church, country and playing by the rules. Of course, he ends up the fall guy for the pack of greedy sociopaths who make up the rest of the cast.

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