When a dark farce titled Entertaining Mr. Sloane opened in London in 1964, it was viewed as rude, scandalous, and repugnant because of its homosexual content and its three main characters’ blatant amorality. Its author, Joe Orton, was a young working-class gay bloke who had recently served a half year in prison, for defacing library books of all things. Those were repressive times. Homosexual acts were still illegal in England. The Lord Chamberlain was still vetting and censoring scripts before they could be staged. Entertaining Mr. Sloane instantly established Orton as enfant terrible du jour.
The Edge of the Universe Players 2—a young company that intends “to produce plays with big meanings that transcend ages and cultures”—now offers DC Metro theatergoers a chance to see for themselves what all the fuss was about. And it’s a show worth checking out. While Entertaining Mr. Sloane as a playscript is not what I’d call timeless, this deft, respectful, and well-crafted production presents a fascinating opportunity to see it now—through eyes that have been opened to much franker and far more explicit treatments of gay themes—and watch a genuinely nervy writing talent at work.
The story takes place in London in the living room of a house built beside a dump. Set Designer Giorgos Tsappas has captured the chintzy mismatched ambiance of cliche British bad taste and Properties Designer Kevin Laughon has filled it with déclassé nick-nacks that fit right in. Into this garishly prim setting comes a twenty-year-old working-class gay bloke, himself a sort of social refuse, with the intention of renting a room.
Kath, the landlord, is played by Claire Schoonover with the nervous overanimation of a woman in her forties who is not past her sexual prime. Like a mama cougar in heat, she pounces on the young man, whom she calls alternately “Mr. Sloane” and “Baby.” Sloane, played by Matthew Aldwin McGee with a seedy, sullen sensuality that Sloane would know has allure, doth not protest.
Enter Kath’s conniving brother, Ed, who also has sexual designs on Sloane. As smoothly played by Jim Jorgensen with unctious seductiveness, Ed persuades Sloane to be his chauffeur and picks up the tab for Sloane’s rent. “Any arrangement you fancy,” says Sloane, never one to turn down a good trick.
Sloane and Ed’s scene together early in Act One is a masterpiece of double entendres and coded sexual subtext, and it’s when my ears began to really prick up to Orton’s crafty and clandestine use of language. After Entertaining Mr. Sloane became a hit, Orton recalled with relish that the Lord Chamberlain had made him take out all the hetersexual naughty bits but left the homosexual ones behind—presumably not noticing they were there.
Nothing is stated, but there can be no mistaking that Ed and Sloane start getting it on off stage. When Ed finds out that Sloane is also having sex with Kath—a lusty connection we need not surmise—he gets testy and the stakes rise. Both Ed and Kath want to keep entertaining their laddie lay. What to do? Therein lies the tension that builds to twists and shocks.
There’s a fourth character, Kemp, who is Kath and Ed’s doddering da. As he comes comes and goes, David Bryan Jackson expresses with each entrance Kemp’s body declining and mental bulb dimming. He and his son have been estranged for twenty years; Kemp was outraged when he caught the boy doing something homosexual in his bedroom and has never stopped being ashamed. Beyond that Kemp’s character functions in the plot in an important way that I won’t give away. Best to be surprised.
Doubtless Entertaining Mr. Sloane got more laughs and gasps back in the day. The experience of viewing it now can elicit a sense that the play’s punches have been pulled. The high-voltage tensions among the characters that once sparked this transgressive comedy seem to have lost some wattage. But that says more about our liberalized times than it does about this production, which Director Stephen Jarrett has staged at a crisp and efficient clip.
Once upon a time this breakthrough script became a hit. They don’t write ’em like this anymore; they don’t have to. Theater like life keeps changing. And today’s real scandals are more likely to happen out on the streets.
If this production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane seems a flashback to a more innocent time, it is also packed with payoff—because the talented team at Edge of the Universe Players 2 has given us a welcome showcase for appreciating Joe Orton’s insidious wit.
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Entertaining Mr. Sloane plays through December 13, 2015, at The Edge of the Universe Players 2 performing at the The Writer’s Center – 4508 Walsh Street, in Bethesda, MD. Tickets are available online.