Ellis. On Orton

Ellis. On Orton Director Scott Ellis mines the "darkness under the farce" of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane.
Scott Ellis
Scott Ellis

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Joe Orton, as we are reminded by his biographer, John Lahr, added devilishly to the philistine hue and cry against his own handiwork with a letter to the editor of a Fleet Street rag. Orton wrote it when the unnervingly amoral Entertaining Mr. Sloane - his first full-length drama - transferred in the summer of 1964 from a small, off-mainstream theatre to London's West End. "I myself was nauseated by this endless parade of mental and physical perversion," the pseudonymous missive proclaimed. "And to be told that such a disgusting piece of filth now passes for humour…. Yours sincerely, Edna Welthorpe (Mrs)."

Roundabout Theatre Company Associate Artistic Director Scott Ellis, who is directing the Off-Broadway revival of Entertaining Mr. Sloane now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre, says he "devoured" Lahr's Prick Up Your Ears - "a great book" - and gave one copy of it, for research, to each of his four actors: Chris Carmack as suave, serpentine young Mr. Sloane; Richard Easton as Kemp, the doddering Dadaa who takes instant dislike to the stranger and will presently be more than repaid in kind; Jan Maxwell as old Kemp's dowdy, middling-aged daughter Kath, avaricious serial seducer of the Sloane who returns the favor(s) with contempt; and Alec Baldwin as Kath's brother, businessman Ed, no less hot to trot with the lad he takes to be a virgin.

It was in fact Baldwin who, says Ellis, set the present project in motion. "I'd never seen Mr. Sloane, had never directed an Orton, had never worked with Alec. Alec approached me. One of the first plays he'd ever been in was [Orton's] Loot. When he suggested Mr. Sloane, I said, 'Let me go read it.' I read it and loved it."

To Ellis (represented most recently on Broadway by Twelve Angry Men and Off-Broadway by The Little Dog Laughed), what's of special richness in Entertaining Mr. Sloane is its implicit conveyance of what was going on in the anything-goes, swinging London of the 1960's. "The world he created, the language, the words, the darkness under the farce - and just his ability to straddle, to balance, all that. These are not cartoon characters by any means." Joe Orton, born New Year's Day 1933 in Leicester, England, and described in one lofty theatre journal as arriving in London 18 years later "as an uneducated nobody with a criminal record," was murdered by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, on Aug. 9, 1967, putting a sudden and shocking full stop to a meteoric three-year career.

Well, yes, says Ellis - "if you want to look at it that way." Orton's What the Butler Saw, generally considered his best and fullest drama, didn't reach daylight until a year and a half after his death - the last of seven plays that shook the moral values and the hypocrisy of, oh, almost everybody - male, female or in between. "Just think what might have happened after that," says Ellis. He means: In the writing. We know what happened - what happens still - in the playing.