Seen Off Broadway: Standards in depravity have gone up—or down, depending on how you look at it. In 1965, Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane lasted a total of 17 performances on Broadway before being run out of town by a lynch mob of appalled critics; 40 years later, after a couple of Off Broadway revivals and an obscure film version, it’s back, with a marquee name in the cast and a typically polished Roundabout production, at the Laura Pels Theatre. Maybe too polished—set designer Allen Moyer has fit the show, snugly, into a box onstage, and early 60s tunes from the Beatles and other charter members of the British invasion play before and after curtain and during the intermission via John Gromada’s Top of the Pops sound design. In his brief, meteoric career, Orton sought to blast through the kitchen-sink clichés of his era, but the new production, played as lightly as possible by an expert cast, is an almost quaint period piece, no matter if LD Kenneth Posner has framed the stage with a template of rubbish. Note, though, the “almost”—while more kid-gloves than was necessary this time out, Orton’s farce retains its sting. The play suggests that the best way for the haves and have-nots to get along is not by practicing peace, love, and understanding, but by pooling ruthless self-interests into a mutually exploitative little collective and to hell with polite society.
And, if Scott Ellis has directed the cast a bit too forcefully to find the laughs, it must be said that the four-member cast gets them. The arrival of the amoral, larcenous, and possibly homicidal Mr. Sloane (Chris Carmack, a bad boy on TV’s The O.C.) into crumbling lodgings outside of London triggers a chain reaction in the sleepy household—dotty middle-aged landlady Kath (Jan Maxwell) fancies him a substitute for the child she gave up for adoption 20 years ago, then just plain fancies him in a weirdly funny-disturbing incestuous scenario, while her father, Kemp (Richard Easton, reliable as always), standard-bearer for an empire-in-eclipse, suspects the worst. Kath’s well-to-do brother, Ed (Alec Baldwin), is also startled; one gander at Mr. Sloane’s buffed young chest (between this and The Pajama Game, Roundabout subscribers are getting an eyeful this season) reduces him to quivering lust, a sack of Jello in a suit immaculately tailored by Michael Krass. Seeming to me to ape the voice and mannerisms of Michael Redgrave, Baldwin is a riot, as he connives to get the lad out of the house and into black leather as his live-in chauffeur, but Kath (woozily and wittily played by Maxwell, in a frumpy Paul Huntley wig and dentures, and Krass’ faded housewear) mounts an offense, as Mr. Sloane ever more brazenly offends.
Notwithstanding the slickness of the production, Moyer has done a fine job tarting up the stage, with a couch seemingly supported by the old newspapers stashed under it and a army of gnomes that Kath uses to gussy up the place (the most prominent one gets its own subtle key light, provided by Posner, who is otherwise engaged to be as withholding as possible with the sunlight-challenged illumination of the flat). Atlas Scenic Studios constructed the scenery, PRG provided the lights, and Masque Sound contributed the audio. I’m not sure what Orton, who was murdered in 1967, would have made of the Beatles music and the well-scrubbed dirtiness of this staging, but an entertaining Entertaining Mr. Sloan isn’t the worst thing to have off Broadway.
Michael John LaChiusa, the talented composer behind the Public’s excellent See What I Wanna See, doesn’t lack for ambition, but, as with the turgid and dull Lincoln Center production Marie Christine (1999-2000), he can aim too high, and miss. Such is the case with his latest work for Lincoln Center, Bernarda Alba, which is playing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse. Federico Garcia Lorca’s grim, allegorical play The House of Bernarda Alba, about the consequences of restrained passion, would not appear to be a likely candidate for musical treatment, and what’s onstage doesn’t suggest otherwise. The songs are thinly written and unmemorable, more like melodic Cliff Notes annotating Garcia’s text than proper show music; the performances, outsized, when not simply stiff, and tending toward exaggeration.
The insurmountable problem is that Bernarda Alba, a tyrannical widow who traps her daughters in a period of extended mourning that ultimately warps their souls, is played by Tony-winner Phylicia Rashad, who even at her sternest projects a genuine warmth. This she disguises, poorly, by acting like Bette Davis in a 60’s horror movie, hissing (and sometimes barking) the word “whore!”, and rolling her eyeballs. And her singing lacks stamina. (Daphne Rubin-Vega, as Alba’s most troublesome daughter, can sing, but has taken to channeling Jennifer Tilly for her diction.) Graciela Daniele, the director and choreographer, lightens the 90 minutes with a few flamenco steps and some business with the ten cane chairs arrayed on the spartan set, but fails to get the show, for all its good intentions, on its feet.
At the very least LaChiusa’s shows provide interesting opportunities for designers, but there’s little to seize here: Toni-Leslie James’ elegant mourning clothes are uniformly styled in basic black; Christopher Barreca’s walled set, a grimy white, is meant to evoke Alba’s horse stable as much as her residence, a pen for children and animals; and Scott Stauffer’s sound design acceptably renders the musicians, who are positioned in a row above the set. Only LD Stephen Strawbridge is allowed a bit of expressionism, with subtly dappled and patterned lighting alternating with occasional flare-ups into orange and red when passions rise in the Alba household. [Centerline Studios constructed the scenery, PRG provided the lights and Masque Sound the audio.] The design is functional and purposeful but, like the rest of Bernarda Alba, it lacks a certain basic appeal. --Robert Cashill