All the World’s a Stage- But the Set’s Gotta Be Right

It’s a pity the garbage dump is missing from the Roundabout Theatre’s revival of Joe Orton’s vintage 1964 black comedy,

It’s a pity the garbage dump is missing from the Roundabout Theatre’s revival of Joe Orton’s vintage 1964 black comedy, Entertaining Mr. Sloane. After all, the English master of amoral anarchy set the genteel drawing room of his play on a garbage dump, and we assume that the great Orton knew what he was doing.

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The set tells us all. It’s the life-blood of any production, creating the world the characters inhabit. If the set is wrong, so goes the show. And that’s why, when the curtain went up on Scott Ellis’ new production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, I practically had a heart attack. Orton didn’t want a suburban house on a hill, but on a dump. No garbage—no rancid quality or challenge to the senses, no danger. No dump—no surprising statement or subtext, no point.

The revival is a watered-down version of the real thing and another Roundabout Theatre cock-up of a classic play. If you don’t know of Orton’s revolutionary work, you’ll be left wondering what all the fuss is about. But if you’ve heard that his black comedies—which in turn influenced Martin McDonagh—can be hilarious, you’ll surely be disappointed by the mild, safe drawing-room comedy on display here.

The production settles for Orton’s outer form (minus that inconvenient garbage dump). Orton’s small masterpiece makes brilliant use of the British classical tradition of middle-class drawing-room plays and conventional farce, but the psychosexual drama going on within it tells a different, subversive story. Mr. Ellis can’t give us Orton’s subtext, however, and, I’m afraid, nor can his quartet of actors.

The gifted and elegant Jan Maxwell plays the coyly refined, middle-aged slut, Kath, for all she’s worth, but Ms. Maxwell simply isn’t a frump. She’s too much of a fluttery “turn.’’ Alec Baldwin has become a very good character actor—an unexpected bonus to the theater—but his amusing Puritan businessman and leather fetishist, Ed, lacks the necessary undertow of authentic menace, though Mr. Baldwin is clearly relishing the role. And Chris Carmack’s Sloane, the angelic thug or avenging rent-boy psychopath who’s meant to appeal to both sexes, achieves neither one nor the other. Only the veteran Richard Easton as the near-senile old bugger, Kemp, conveys the right kind of comic squalor.

Kath delivers one of Orton’s great lines, incidentally: “Kiss my hand, dear, in the manner of the theatre,” she announces grandly to Sloane. It might even be one of the great theatrical lines. But the manner of Entertaining Mr. Sloane needs to be a rancid romp, an evil comedy of manners that demolishes middle-class hypocrisy—not a slightly raunchy sitcom or mildly entertaining drawing-room comedy. It needs the garbage dump.

IMAGINE LEAVING THE BLOOD OUT of Mr. McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore. The authentic look and feel of the marvelous Inishmore production is rooted in Scott Pask’s wonderful, deceptively simple set. Mr. Pask won a Tony Award for Mr. McDonagh’s more visually flashy Pillowman with its macabre, painterly triptychs. But the spare, even threadbare, setting of Inishmore represents the bigger challenge. And there, in space and light and time, Mr. Pask has conjured up the atmosphere of an impoverished Aran Island cottage on craggy, unforgiving Inishmore.

The cottage, such as it is, has been lived in for a century or more, and every single object in it belongs there. More to the point, it contains a world beyond it. For, beyond its door, we imagine a lane where cats get run over deliberately and cows are shot for sport in neighboring fields that are visited by gunmen, and no other houses are in sight.

BUT WHAT ARE WE TO SAY WHEN a video screen in a production illustrates the action with film of, say, a cottage or a field? Do we go to the theater to watch a movie? Video is substituting more and more for actual sets—replacing theatrical imagination with cheap pseudo-reality. If we’re going to have video in theater, we need the inventive genius of an avant-gardist like Robert Lepage, the master of the form. A failed, indulgently grandiose example is the dizzying use of video that swamped and dwarfed the entire proceedings of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wayward The Woman in White. Even as a film, Trevor Nunn’s production was over-busy with its swooping, clichéd vistas of waterfalls and grand country estates out of Merchant-Ivory. The emotionally deadening outcome was an eyeful that cut us off from the presumably live performers struggling to be noticed onstage.

A low-rent video version of the big budget The Woman in White is the Johnny Cash songbook, Ring of Fire. I commented last week on the game, though bloodless, performers who make every Cash standard sound the same. But then, every change in mood is signaled by stock video images that look the same. Hence the video projections of a weathered white cottage (for the domestic country-and-western songs), a cornfield (for more country songs) and a jailhouse (for the prison-song medley).

Bet you didn’t know what a jailhouse looked like until they showed us a Kodak Moment. But the same kind of dogged literalness hampers even Off Broadway. The Music Teacher, a play-opera with words by Wallace Shawn and music by his brother, Allen Shawn, isn’t, I regret to say, a happy evening at the theater. The piece was written 23 years ago and has only now received its first staging by the New Group at the Minetta Lane Theatre. What are we to say about Tom Cairns’ sluggish production when the wan hero of The Music Teacher catches a plane—and a video screen shows us film of a plane taking off?

Bet you’ve never seen a plane taking off before.

THAT VERY RARELY PRODUCED PLAY, Hedda Gabler, at least had no video in its latest staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, starring Cate Blanchett. But it had everything else. This is the first production of Ibsen’s masterpiece to turn his tragedy of female existence into a domestic comedy. But the clue to what’s wrong is the schizophrenic set.

On the one hand, the design is Edwardian—the conventional furniture and costumes. On the other hand, it’s impressionistic—the backdrop of imposing windows with their huge black drapes. Anything goes in this production from the Sydney Theatre Company, and anything does. Ms. Blanchett’s ultra-modern Hedda is appearing in a different play from the rest of the cast, particularly the men. Their play is pro forma, earnest Edwardian, whereas the star is acting alone in a crowd-pleasing, narcissistic melodrama.

Ms. Blanchett is undoubtedly a fine stage actress and potentially one of the highest order. Her Hedda is best in intelligent, icy repose and internal fury, but showy and blatant in “public.” She’s more desperate housewife than entrapped proto-feminist. Indulged by her director, Robyn Nevin, she acts with knowing irony. Her destructive Hedda reveals her hand too obviously (and therefore should intimidate no one, including her ineffectual lapdog husband). If this is the only production of the great play I’ve seen that’s happy to get laughs in all the wrong places, Ms. Blanchett is surely the only Hedda to perform a pratfall for us. It comes with the business when she deliberately falls over a footstool—symbol of cumbersome, unwanted domesticity, we assume. The set design is one schizo thing. This is a Hedda Gabler without mystery or secrets.

All the World’s a Stage- But the Set’s Gotta Be Right