When Chris Carmack doffs his shirt in Roundabout's revival of Entertaining Mr. Sloane at the Laura Pels Theatre, the ripples of giddy excitement that emanate from the stage are of the chatteringly infectious variety that kindergarteners might summon when they hear a forbidden swear word in a new context. And those little tykes have nothing on Kath.
She's prim, or so she looks; she's proper, or so she behaves. But when this 40-something English busybody, as played by the divine Jan Maxwell, is around the right slab of skin, she's a child all over again. And regression has seldom been more fun than when Maxwell's Kath, upon seeing Mr. Sloane (Carmack) half-naked for the first time, adopts girlish and motherly attitudes that contradict and reconcile themselves in ways you thought were reserved for the interactions of matter and antimatter.
That's not a grown woman sprawled on the couch in a near-transparent black nightgown, waiting for new boarder Sloane to settle in for the night, and playing so many adolescent games of hard to get with an urgency that suggests a hunger that's never been sated. But when Sloane turns out to be, shall we say, not as nice as he looks, darned if Kath doesn't display maternal self-preservation on par with that of Rose in Gypsy.
Maxwell's performance, alternately brittle, brutal, and boisterous, so centers this revival of Joe Orton's first play (from 1964, seen on Broadway a year a later) that it's almost a sad afterthought that nothing else remotely measures up to it. But director Scott Ellis has done Maxwell no favors by not ramping up the energy around her to match her level of daffy, focused commitment: She's a bonfire surrounded by birthday candles.
As it's the burning of lust, at the expense of any pretense of morality, that drives the play, this production never approaches the level of cutting commentary it should. As Kath spars with her manipulative businessman brother, Ed (Alec Baldwin), over control of Sloane, you never get a complete sense of their desires for him abutting - and eventually overtaking - their compulsion to do the right thing.
That's hardly visible here in the first place, which makes most of their pursuits (of varying degrees of obviousness) inappropriately shallow. Of course, libidinous hankering, whether in the theater or in real life, seldom dips much below the surface. Orton, however, never uses it simply to its own ends, but in pursuit of a higher point, in this case about the violent vacuousness of early-1960s Britain.
That rarely is communicated in Ellis's conception, which tries to point up the comedy through the poking and prodding of oily naturalism, but doesn't attain the slightly heightened state necessary to make these jokes shake the walls. There's laughter to be found, much of it stemming from Baldwin's strait-laced send-up of barely repressed lasciviousness while trying to engage Stone as his personal chauffeur or as his personal... something else. But the laughter, like the show's warnings about the deceptive attractiveness of evil, is usually found wanting.
Richard Easton, as Kath and Ed's father, Kemp, occasionally helps with the latter: He sees beneath Sloane's chiseled artifice to the unsavory urchin underneath, providing a shot of black coffee to his children's intoxication. Easton plays him as an occasionally insightful dodderer, though not one believably capable of putting two and two together about Sloane's true nature as the play progresses. Easton often plays Kemp as too frail, too out of it, but nonetheless shines when the old man's head clears; otherwise, he's still searching for the correct balance between knowledge and senility.
Baldwin tips his scales in favor of underplaying Ed, a better choice for an actor than a comedian. (Judging by his work here and by his underwhelming turn in Roundabout's disastrous Twentieth Century two years ago, this is a common problem for Baldwin.) You want someone both rigid and off-kilter, peering over a cliff at the forbidden world below and making you think he'll fall; Baldwin, at his funniest, is always viewing things from a safe distance.
Only Maxwell finds the right blend of goofy and commonplace, and makes you feel the pain of a woman who needs a young lover as much as she needs a son, even if they're both the same person. Her leaps of logic make sense in her unduly ordered life, and when she consciously takes control of them, when it looks like she's most in danger of losing everything to the conniving Ed, you might have to stifle a cheer for her achievement.
But not even Maxwell can prove why this Mr. Sloane should be tug-of-war-worthy. Carmack has sculpted his chest with care, but spent less time defining Sloane's personality. There's little hint of the danger that Sloane must represent to everyone, that makes him as sexy as it makes him mysterious. Carmack's poses and postures feel determined to show off his physical assets while camouflaging the fact that there's nothing at all underneath. But in doing so, he further proves that, but for Maxwell, this is one empty affair.
Entertaining Mr. Sloane