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Stephen Weston and Caroline Langford in
Entertaining Mr. Sloane
(Photo © Jonathan Silver)
Nowadays, it's difficult to attend a Joe Orton play -- and perhaps especially Entertaining Mr. Sloane -- without being tempted to factor Orton's own demise into the experience. When in 1967 the naughty playwright was hammered to death by his aspiring but far less successful lover, Kenneth Halliwell, his plays suddenly seemed to be foreshadowing reality. Orton's bloody end was life imitating art in an unusually bizarre manifestation.

Of course, Orton had mined domestic violence throughout his short play list, which also includes Loot and What the Butler Saw. In Entertaining Mr. Sloane, a young man of dubious character (and possibly Orton's version of his basest instincts) kicks an old man to heart failure. In gleefully perpetrating his black comedies, did Orton sense his own destiny or was he somehow articulating a self-fulfilling prophecy? How can his work fail to be related to his bludgeoning? Though there's no confirming the theory, an observer might conclude that they must be connected. Or are Orton's works for the stage -- he was readying a screenplay for the Beatles when he was killed -- no more and no less than confirmation of his worst beliefs about human behavior?

Certainly, Orton created an oeuvre to which a macabre layer of meaning was added at his demise. I certainly felt it during the current Working Stiff production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, which is a perfectly respectable show from start to cynical conclusion. In this three-act play, Mr. Sloane (Stephen Weston), whose Christian name is never revealed, comes home with the kittenish Kath (Caroline Langford). She's offering him lodging in the lower-middle-class abode (nicely tchotchke-ized by set designer Richard Cerullo) that she shares with her doddering Dadda (Sean Dill) and in which she's regularly visited by her businessman brother Ed (Steve Pesola).

Within seconds of Mr. Sloane's arrival, a game of seducing the seducer is afoot that eventually involves Sloane, Kath, and Ed as competitive players. The suspense attending who gets the upper hand -- and the cheapest feel -- is fueled by Orton's determination to prove that men and women communicate solely by way of bad faith and manipulation. As the youth and the siblings vie for power through sexual conquest and the old man whips his cane around like Mr. Muckle in W. C. Fields's It's a Gift, Orton scores his sore points about human nature -- and he signals his view of England circa 1964 when one of his connivers mentions that the household is operating "in the middle of a rubbish heap." (To back up this assertion, designer Cerullo piles an old tire and other junk outside the set's one dingy window.)

As mentioned above, the Working Stiff mounting is respectable; but the aim of any Orton play is to be perfectly disrespectful. That's to say, Orton's out to be iconoclastic. The play is a sinister endeavor. As directed by Jonathan Silver, this Entertaining Mr. Sloane is entertaining but it falls just short of the menace that should cover the proceedings like a spreading fungus. Yes, Orton wants laughs, which Silver and cast elicit -- but he doesn't want them at the expense of mounting horror. Besides that, the director hasn't found the underlying pulse of the play, which is necessary to give it drive. As a result, he occasionally allows what should be acute to turn merely cute.

The actors are close enough to the mark to be commended. Stephen Weston's Mr. Sloane gets the closest with the shark's grin that he displays during much of his dialogue; it's the frozen smile that people use when they've just said or done something particularly outrageous. A thin British lad who looks as if he's been sculpted from cold pink marble, Weston is here aided by what Brits in the '60s called a "coyf," for coiffeur; the program credits the hairdo to DOV Salon. It's a shade of bleached blond that looks like the color of something killed by the sun -- and the darker roots are showing.

As Kath, Caroline Langford is a bit too deliberate in the earlier scenes when throwing herself at Mr. Sloane; she does look a right joke, however, in the see-through outfit that costumer Renata Podolec has unearthed for her. Later, her calculated coyness connects. Steve Pesola's Ed eludes him in the early scenes, as well. He gives the impression that he's about to laugh at the shenanigans his character is up to. But Pesola, too, reaches farther down into himself as the momentum of manipulation gathers. Sean Dill is probably too young to play old man Kemp, though he makes the man's nastiness register.

A shocker when it first presented in London and New York, Entertaining Mr. Sloane packs only slightly less punch now. Yet it does look more than ever like Orton's clever variation on The Caretaker, which Harold Pinter introduced three years earlier. Those troublemaking English dramatists were certainly feeling their oats in those days!

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