Joe Orton may be dead, but he still despises you. Or at least his plays do. As the British playwright once put it, "The general public are, where plays are concerned, ignorant [expletives]." Admittedly, he wrote that after the miserable failure of one of his farces in 1966. But that attitude, like some leather-jacketed, cigarette-smoking punk, lurks in the background of almost all seven plays he wrote in his short lifetime.

Fortunately, Orton did have a way with irony. And so does Tom Mallan, who has directed one of Orton's early plays, "Entertaining Mr. Sloane," for the Washington Shakespeare Company. But unlike the playwright, Mallan understands that even foolish people are still people. As a result, his production, which just opened, manages to evoke compassion from a script that is otherwise vintage Orton--savage and self-congratulatory ridicule of the English middle class.

The mysterious young Mr. Sloane (Jeffrey Johnson) comes to rent a room from middle-aged Kath (Rosemary Regan), a bourgeois spinster who may or may not be delusional and who lives with her retired father, Kemp (Richard Mancini), who is definitely an old crank. But is he just being cranky when he thinks he recognizes Sloane as a murderer?

Kath's brother Ed (Christopher Henley) drops in. Ed has somehow come into money but shares none of it with his family, which, we quickly learn, has more than its share of problems--which come tumbling out hilariously as Kath, Ed and Kemp argue about whether Sloane should be allowed to stay.

What ensues is basically a Freudian farce: Both Kath and Ed lust after Sloane; Kemp dreads him. Sloane, meanwhile, seems remarkably submissive and compliant, as if waiting for his elders to tell him what's best. But which id-iot, as it were, is really in control? The reactions to Sloane, dressed up as they are in proper language, are all insatiably, ruthlessly instinctual. And those instincts determine the skewed way in which Ed and Kath, in particular, view Sloane. Sloane, however, is well aware of all this and uses it.

When he satirized his own generation's voracious appetites--and the willingness to do anything to sate them--Orton was unsurpassed. But the middle class was always his main target, and his contempt for its values--particularly security and success, the very things Orton himself was pursuing--was out of control. In this play, Kath, Ed and Kemp are contemptuously held up as paragons of the middle class, which Orton clearly felt himself superior to.

By making each character as fully human as possible, Mallan has provided what Orton didn't. No farce allows much room for character development, but the key here is that Mallan doesn't accept the author's assumption that these are simply laughable people.

All four characters in the production are driven by more than just the pleasure principle: There's an emotional desperation in each of them, and Mallan layers it in carefully between the witty lines. The resulting pathos turns a cleverly complacent lampoon into a dark, rueful comedy.

Regan's Kath is a remarkable creation--a silly, vacuous woman you come to care about--and the performance resonates on multiple levels. Johnson blends innocence and sensuality in a way that makes Sloane completely credible as simultaneously prey and predator. As old Kemp, the one character conscious of something larger than himself (a superego that walks with a cane), Mancini, in another performance of integrity, doesn't hold back the foulness of the character. Henley's Ed, full of bravado and hypocrisy, is tempered and made interesting by the actor's ability to make him sound suspiciously uncertain beneath his peremptory lines.

Giorgos Tsappas's set--a parlor that looks more American than English--nonetheless features a movable upstage wall that nicely crowds the actors in the last act, literally forcing them to contend with each other's physical presence. Timm Burrow's costumes look like a cross between Carnaby Street and Woolworth's, circa 1964. There's also some leather and some cigarette smoking onstage, but thanks to Mallan, the punk is nowhere in sight.

Entertaining Mr. Sloane, by Joe Orton. Directed by Tom Mallan. Lighting by Ayun Fedorcha; sound, Jim Stone. Through Dec. 12 at Washington Shakespeare Company, Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington. Call 703-418-4808.