Jan Maxwell and Chris Carmack in Entertaining Mr. Sloane
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Jan Maxwell and Chris Carmack in Entertaining Mr. Sloane
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Dark, subversive, even chilling. These are the words traditionally used to describe Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Now, forget about them. For the word that most suits Scott Ellis's production for the Roundabout is, of all things, entertaining. And while it's a bit churlish to complain about any two hours in the theater where one can smile broadly and laugh heartily (especially after having endured Mr. Marmalade in this very space just a few months ago), the bottom line is that Orton's 1964 satire of middle-class morality shouldn't end up as toothless as its lone female character, Kath (Jan Maxwell), does after her dentures have been knocked out by the unhappy Mr. Sloane (Chris Carmack).

That bit of business, which occurs very late in the proceedings, is played as much for its comic effect as its underlying nastiness, which is pretty indicative of Ellis' overall conception of the play. The signs are there from the get-go, from the all-too-peppy 1960s English pop soundtrack that greets the audience to Allen Moyer's brighter-than-might-be-expected set of a slightly worn, middle-class English household. (He has, however, ingeniously framed the house inside a giant, enlarged photograph of a garbage dump to connote the play's unusual setting.) And the first act, a mere 35 minutes, is played essentially as farce, complete with Kath taking a gratuitous pratfall. About the only detail Ellis leaves out is having the kitchen door slam.

The first act is also a set-up for the twists and turns to come. Kath has brought home Mr. Sloane, who she picked up at the library, to be a lodger -- or as we might say today, a lodger with benefits. Consigned to living with only Kemp, her doddering dad (Richard Easton), for company, Kath is starved for love and affection. And on the surface, the nice, very hunky young man might be just the trick; she's looking for a substitute for the baby she gave away 20 years ago; he's an orphan seeking a home-cooked meal and a friendly bosom to nuzzle. But Orton quickly reveals that all is not as it seems, when Kemp recalls where he's seen the clean-cut but hardly clean-living Sloane before. Also not what who he seems is Kath's brother, Ed (Alec Baldwin), a prosperous businessman who fancies himself the model of respectability and virtue, but who lusts in his heart -- and his eyes -- for Sloane the minute he lays eyes on him.

In the play's second and third acts (played together here), Orton brilliantly creates an ever-shifting power struggle among Ed, Kath, and Sloane (and even briefly Kemp), who each turn out to have a very slippery definition of morality and a very firm grasp on the concept of self-interest. There should be a lot at stake here -- literally matters of life and death -- but the violence, both emotional and physical, never registers as strongly as it should.

Having assembled an impressive quartet of actors to showcase his vision, Ellis has chosen to hold the directorial reins rather loosely. That's especially true of Baldwin, who occasionally appears to believe he's back on the set of Saturday Night Live (which he has hosted over a dozen times). A tad too often, his performance teeters close to parody. Yet, he is an undeniable expert in getting a laugh with a leer, a raised eyebrow, or the perfect vocal inflection. And he looks smashing in Michael Krass' beautifully tailored costumes.

Maxwell's Kath is initially not what one expects from the role: she's more physically alluring than slatternly, and so fluttery that she appears to be challenging Edith Bunker for the dingbat crown. But she quickly shows off her signature gift as an actress: the inability to settle for mere caricature. (It was even true of her Baroness Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). By play's end, Maxwell has exposed all of Kath's facets -- her pain, her pathos, her cunning -- in a way that her character's quasi-happy ending seems well deserved.

Finally, many eyes will be squarely focused on Carmack, the former Abercrombie & Fitch model and TV hunk, who is making his Off-Broadway debut here. This very tall, very muscular actor more-than-physically fits the bill as sexually aggressive Sloane -- as evidenced by a lengthy shirtless interlude and a briefer scene where he's splayed across the sofa in his very tight tighty-whites. The good news, however, is that he's more than the proverbial pretty face. Carmack captures a fair amount of Sloane's duplicitious, not to mention dastardly, nature (though a little less indicating and a little more danger might be nice).

Finally, the ever-wonderful Easton plays the text faithfully, grounding the production in a way his castmates often don't. Yes, he isn't above a little bit of larger-than-life playing; like everyone on stage, he has entertaining on his mind. But there's no question, he also has the real message of Entertaining Mr. Sloane on his mind as well.