The Artful Lodger

Brother & sister vie over tenant with killer pecs—and instincts

Joe Orton burst onto the London theater scene in 1964 with his subversive farce, “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” which features a brutal bludgeoning that’s largely forgotten before the body has grown cold.

Three years later, in one of the more tragic cases of life-imitates-art, the budding playwright was found bashed to death by his longtime companion, Kenneth Halliwell, who promptly offed himself with a fistful of barbiturates. A jealous rage, the suicide note indicated.

Unlike the victim in the play, however, Orton will never be forgotten, thanks in part to the wickedly brilliant revival staged by director Scott Ellis and the Roundabout Theatre Company.

Entertaining only begins to describe this deliciously dark comedy about a libidinous power struggle between Kath (Jan Maxwell), a randy landlady and her persnickety brother, Ed (Alec Baldwin), as they compete for the attentions of a drop-dead gorgeous lodger.

The play opens with the dotty Kath giving a house tour to a strapping, shifty young lad named Sloane who’s in need of, among other things, a new roof over his head. The Miss Lonely-Hearts is more than willing to throw in some motherly—and otherly—love, along with room and board. Though she’s “middle aged,” there’s still enough bloom on her rose to rouse his interest.

Having lost her husband and son years ago—the tot either dead or given up for adoption, the story changes—Kath hopes to adopt the 20-year old Sloane. The not-so-innocent boy claims—without batting an eye—to come from an orphanage himself.

Doddering old “Dadda,” Kemp, doesn’t take kindly to strangers. While his daughter is off in the kitchen, he insists he recognizes the bloke as his boss’s murderer, who’s still at large.

The crafty Orton, in a transparent ploy to get his anti-hero to show some skin, has Kemp stab the lodger’s upper thigh with a barbecue fork. Naturally, the pants and shirt come off and Kath must tend to his wounds. No one in the audience seems to mind.

“I wouldn’t want to restrict your circulation,” Kath leers as she bandages him up with a stray swath of silk from her sewing/first aid drawer.

When brother Ed, arrives, he’s so smitten by the boy you can practically see the saliva dripping from his wolf-like chops. Ed utters dismay about Sloane’s “cantering around the house with a bare bum.” Indeed.

Before long, Ed strikes a deal with the lodger that he be his personal chauffer. The only catch? That the boy wear black leather boots, pants, and cap, with a really tight white T-shirt. A businessman of questionable means, Ed prides himself on having “a certain amount of influence” and “friends with money.”

It’s impossible not to identify with at least one of these desperate souls. Somehow, their selfish gyrations, no matter how base or scandalous, appear thoroughly justified in our smiling eyes—with the possible exception of the murder that comes later.

Such is the genius that is Orton, and this top-notch production.

This may be Baldwin’s most sublime stage role to date—he gets the best zingers and tosses them off with devilish glee. He is no stranger to Orton, having appeared in “Loot” on Broadway some years back.

Also unforgettable is the, um, muscular performance of newcomer Chris Carmack, whose cocky turn as the wayward lodger is as mesmerizing to us as to the lust-struck siblings. If he looks like he’s stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, it’s because he was one of its top models before his acting career took hold. Anyone who might have scoffed at the casting of Carmack as eye candy is only half-right. This looker can really act.

Maxwell, most recently seen in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” is shamelessly seductive as the over-the hill coquette. Richard Easton, Tony Award winner for his role in “Invention of Love,” delights as the foolhardy father.

The beauty of “Mr. Sloane” is how these characters look each other straight in the eye and lie so convincingly through their teeth. They choose whatever truth suits their urges, and we fall for it.

The whole affair has an old-school simplicity—free from gimmickry—that still feels fresh. The action unfolds on a single, stationary set designed by Allen Moyer, of a dingy parlor in a suburban London abode. There are no lighting tricks or projected images. No flashy flashbacks—the story takes place real-time, with a fast-forward six months later between Acts I and II.

Besides the bludgeoning, the play harbors another chilling, real-life connection. After securing Sloane’s services, Ed mentions he plans to “Take a couple of Nembutal and then bed.” According to published reports, that’s the same sedative that Orton’s lover Halliwell chose after the grisly murder. Except in Halliwell’s case, he took 22 of them instead.

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