‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ at Malibu Stage not typical family fare

Nicolas Levene (left) and Clement Von Franckenstein (right) star in "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" by Joe Orton, which opened at the Malibu Stage Co. on Aug. 10 and runs until Sept. 2.

When Joe Orton’s black comedy “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” first opened in London in May 1964, it was greeted with critical praise and outrage, including a letter to the editor written by a (Mrs.) Edna Welthorpe, who said, “… And to be told that such a disgusting piece of filth now passes for humour. Today’s young playwrights take it upon themselves to flaunt their contempt for ordinary decent people.”

Orton was delighted. Not the least because he himself had written the letter and, when the play transferred to a theater in the West End, ticket buyers lined the block. Orton was hailed as one of London’s “Most Promising New Playwrights.”

Orton went on to write, in a breathlessly productive few years, several television and theater plays that were produced to varying degrees of commercial success, including “Loot,” “Funeral Games” and “What the Butler Saw,” which was booed so loudly by gallery first nighters that critics could not hear the lines.

A unifying style throughout Orton’s work is a sense of macabre humor so farcical that it came to be known as “Ortonesque,” which not all audiences of London’s swinging sixties could stomach. When “Loot” was produced in Wimbledon in 1965, one critic said, “Loot” was a dead horse, but it continues to be flogged.”

Nonetheless, Orton’s body of work is now compared to that of Harold Pinter and John Osborne, and is among the most frequently produced revivals in theater today.

Besides crackling wit, Orton’s plays feature a psychosexual tension and an obsession with adultery and murder that were morbidly reflected in his gruesome death. At the age of 34, his longtime lover, Kenneth Halliwell, who went on to commit suicide by swallowing Nembutal, fatally bludgeoned him.

Orton in Malibu

Malibu Stage Company takes on Orton’s creepy sexual absurdity with a production of “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” that sees a full cast of British-born and trained actors.

The sweetly nymphomaniacal Kath (Caroline Langford) welcomes a studly new boarder, Mr. Sloane (Nicolas Levene) into the family home, ostensibly for rent money, but really to cherish how Sloane looks in tight leather pants. That she is a frumpy, fortyish burgher restrains her not at all from immediately and aggressively seducing the oddly compliant, street-wise Sloane, who knows a good set-up when he sees one.

Although her nearly blind “Da” (Clement von Franckenstein) is suspicious of Sloane, her brother Ed (Ethan Flower) is as bowled over by Sloane as his sister and the competition that ensues for Sloane’s favor is hilariously self-serving.

“Entertaining Mr. Sloane” is a funny and disturbing comment on homophobia, sexual politics and the sinister ability of sociopathy to prey on the (clueless) middle class. Though ostensibly framed by its early sixties time period (bits of The Beatles’ “Revolver” album open and close the two acts), director Charles Marowitz chooses to set his story in a nebulous historical context, with the only clue to a timeline being the shiny vinyl set flooring that looks like a giant LP. (Emmy-award winning artist John Iacovelli designed the set.)

Langford plays Kath as a confused bobble-head of maternal sexual voracity. “Until I was 15, I was more familiar with Africa than my own body,” Kath trills as she pounces on Sloane. The fact that she previously gave birth, as a teenager, to a baby who either died “in very sad circumstances,” or she gave him to an orphanage (Sloane was raised in an orphanage) raises the creep level. “He’d be just about your age,” she coos.

Flower’s overbearing Ed still wants to win back the love of his curmudgeonly father, who disinherited him after discovering his son in bed with another man, years before. Unfortunately, the appearance of Sloane on the scene throws fuel on the fire and Ed is hypnotized by Sloane’s appeal. “I suspect it’s all that orange juice,” he drools.

Levene, as Sloane, has a muscularly boyish allure like film star Brendan Fraser and his amoral survival instincts, just as much as his bulging biceps, encourage Ed and Kath to justify anything for Sloane’s attention. After he has murdered their father, Sloane pleads with Ed. “You wouldn’t put me away, would you? I’m impressionable. Think what [jail] would do to me. I’d pick up criminal connections!”

Ed caves. (“Is this where my liberal principals have gotten me?”) One may not approve of the twisted sexual morality but-hey-it’s all in the family.

“Entertaining Mr. Sloane” runs through Sept. 2, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., at the Malibu Stage Company, 29243 PCH. For reservations, call 310.589.1998.