Walk on the Wilde Side

In the months before August 1967, when his lover bludgeoned him to death with a hammer, Joe Orton had finally begun to make some theatrical waves. A failure at high school and then as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he wrote with little success for a decade. Then, in 1966, came Loot, a play in which he combined amusement and monstrousness in previously unheard-of ways to confront more than tease English audiences about conventionalities. An outrageous hit -- its original title, Funeral Games, suggests some of the cultural observances at which he wickedly takes aim -- it won the Evening Standard Award and Play and Players Award for Best Play and anticipated his offending triumphant farce, What the Butler Saw (1967), first produced posthumously in 1969. It also got him a screenplay commission from, of all people, the Beatles, who surely must have known that the script would be explicit, racy, aggressive.

Nevertheless, the Fab Four rejected Up Against It in April 1967. That month, Orton began revising two earlier short plays, The Ruffian on the Stair (1963) and The Erpingham Camp (1965), to appear as the double bill Crimes of Passion, which opened in June at the Royal Court Theatre. Ruffian climaxes with a jealous murder; Erpingham ends with the fatal beating of the title character. In August, two months later, Orton, a lover of irony, suffered the same fate at the hands of a man and mentor with whom he had lived for 16 years in a 12-by-16 flat. Kenneth Halliwell, 25 to Orton's 17 when they met, couldn't tolerate his protege's ascent while his own literary attempts floundered. He overdosed on sleeping pills after battering Orton's brains out. The subject of a terrific biography by John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears, and a terrific 1987 movie of the same name, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Gary Oldman, Orton was 34 when he died.

"I'm from the gutter," Orton wrote in his diaries. "And don't you ever forget it because I won't." An anti-social rebel who (along with Halliwell) went to jail for defacing scads of library books and who voraciously haunted seedy public men's rooms for sex, Orton had contempt for society. He filled his plays with sexual innuendo to infuriate the respectable English middle class; he believed that the bourgeoisie had the capacity to -- and did -- commit every imaginable offense. Cruel, heartless and chaotic, he offered his audiences grotesques. Living his personal and creative lives outside a controlling society, he became a vindictive comedian, both marginal and dangerous. (Fond of pranks, he invented a prudish, straight-laced alter ego, "Edna Welthrope (Mrs.)," in whose name he wrote angry letters to the editor denouncing the "endless parade of mental and physical perversion" from that supposed playwright Joe Orton.) A London Observer critic acutely dubbed him "the Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility."

Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1963), presented at Kuumba House by Inside/Out Productions, is an early Orton attempt to amuse and shock and offend with his disrespectful, vicious world-view. In a Pinteresque atmosphere of uncertainty and vague terror, Mr. Sloane, a mysterious pretty boy who's amoral, bisexual and criminal, intrudes upon a suspect household. Kath, a daft, lickerish, fortysomething bird of a landlady, takes a liking to the new boarder; "I shall be your momma," she says, straddling him. Her wealthy, prim and priggish brother Ed also likes him; constantly speaking of the principles he can instill in Sloane, he employs him as a chauffeur in hopes of seducing him. Sloane, out to get what he can, has no qualms about surrendering his body to the dueling, self-deluding siblings. His problem is with Kemp, their father, who recognizes Sloane as the perpetrator of a recent murder he has witnessed. When Kemp talks, Sloane kicks him to death. Instead of turning him in, Ed tries to blackmail him into sexual servitude. Kath does too. They succeed through complicity.

Director Bob Maddox doesn't punch up his production of this play, whose shock value is no longer as provocative or alarming as it must have been 30 years ago; neither the sets, lighting or blocking adds spice to the simplistic condemnation that people -- always entertaining, always entertaining something -- are valueless. Maddox's lost opportunities are particularly deleterious because, for instance, the characters' outlandish (and drawn-out) Act Three compromise can be seen coming at least an act away. The reductive and obvious text isn't helped by Maddox's penchant for instructing the actors to stare out windows or gaze away from each other when speaking: they don't interact, they don't pull off voice inflection or facial revelation.

The principal offender is Travis Ammons, as Sloane. The overconfident Ammons makes Sloane gratingly cocky instead of charmingly disarming. Dubiously exhibiting menace and insinuation from the get-go, he acts through tsk-tsk gestures, so-there smugness, scrunched-eyebrow anger. David Rigg convincingly turns Ed into a befuddled, frustrated stiff confused by women "frightening everyone with their clothes," but this portrayal doesn't reflect the closeted double-entendres Ed slips in virtually every time he speaks. Jacqueline Jasper's Kath, a tease who flirts with dangers sexual and otherwise, occasionally sparkles desperately when offering tidbits like, "You can't see through this dress, can you?" while sidling up to Sloane. Kemp doesn't have much to do, and Grant Kilpatrick conveys this.

"I find people profoundly bad and irresistibly funny," Orton wrote. He admitted that he didn't quite nail it in this play. The short-lived envelope-pusher surely would have thought it a gas that Inside/Out Productions unintentionally did him a service by exposing more of its shortcomings than his own.


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