I will admit that I arrived for the delayed opening of Joe Orton’s 1964 play, “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” at the Irish Classical Theatre Company with a sense of dread. The postponement had inspired rumors of trouble in rehearsal, actors unprepared, and a production slogging its way toward certain disaster. As the lights began to dim, I silently uttered the universal critic’s prayer, “Please just don’t let this be awful.”
What a difference a week can make. From the first moment of the play, when Kelli Bocock-Natale races onto the stage as sexually frustrated Kath, the world of Joe Orton explodes onto the stage of the Andrews Theatre in all its joyfully perverse and cynical glory. Sometimes there’s God so quickly!
After the 1950s, when a generation of angry young men took over the British theater, the arrival of Joe Orton represented a new sort of 1960s English bad boy.
In the mythology of English theater, when Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” opened at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956, British drama was rescued by a wave of new writers who supplanted such trivial hacks as Terence Rattigan, Noel Coward and W. Somerset Maugham. Unlike their predecessors, these new writers were young. They were manly. They were lower class. They were recklessly dissatisfied with English middle class values. They were heterosexual.
The brief but incandescent career of young, Joe Orton, however, signaled a new direction for English drama. In a universally overlooked detail, openly homosexual Orton’s career also represented the triumph of the old guard, the closeted gay writers who had sustained pre-War English theater. Orton’s West End debut was actually financed by the supposedly irrelevant and obsolete Terence Rattigan.
Today, Orton, Coward, Rattigan and Maugham each remain more popular and frequently produced than all of the “angry young men” combined. The unconventional desires represented in such plays as Coward’s “Private Lives” and “Design for Living”; Rattigan’s “Separate Tables” “The Winslow Boy” and “The Browning Version”; or Maugham’s “The Constant Wife,” “The Letter” and “The Circle” gain new meaning when juxtaposed with the work of Orton. Consider that Rattigan wrote “Man and Boy,” in which a character shockingly hints that he will pimp out his son to cinch a business deal, in 1963, the year before “Mr. Sloane.”
In “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” middle-aged Kath meets young and handsome “Mr. Sloane” and brings him home, ostensibly as a potential boarder. What ensues is a story of socially inappropriate sexual desires run amok.
Both Kath and her closeted brother Ed, played by Stan Klimecko, are sexually attracted to Mr. Sloane. They become obsessed with him and competitive for his attention. Meanwhile, their father, played by Gerry Maher, recognizes Mr. Sloane as the young hustler who murdered his boss. Given Mr. Sloane’s assets, this possibility does not concern anybody else too much.
This collision of sexual desire, criminality, and sheer absurdity, characterizes the small but enormously influential dramatic output of Joe Orton.
Director Greg Natale has assembled a dream cast for this production.
Kelli Bocock-Natale is a comic genius. (Yes, I know. That’s a critical cliché, but it is entirely apt on this occasion). Her facial expressions, her gestures, her intonations, and her impeccable timing combine to create a work of hilarious wonder. As Kath, she is alternately naïve and cunning. Beneath a façade of guileless vulnerability, she is a shark. We delight in her every word and double take – the way she walks, the way she cries, the way she manipulates her world to satisfy her inappropriate and insatiable desires.
Coming from his recent triumph as sleazy Cosmo Vittelli in the Torn Space Theater adaptation of John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” actor Stan Klimecko seems to have trademarked onstage creepiness. As Ed, the way he exudes perverse delight while leering at Mr. Sloane simultaneously makes our skin crawl and triggers uncontrollable giggles. He embodies the character wholly and convincingly, right down the way he holds his cigarette between his thumb and index finger.
Costume designer Vivian DelBello has served these actors exceptionally well with clothes that amplify their characters brilliantly: Bocock-Natale in an alternately array of fashions for housewifery and for the boudoir; Klimecko in attire that speaks to both his sleaziness and his social pretentions.
Buffalo’s consummate character actor, Gerry Maher, is ideal in the role of Kemp, the father who represents the doomed voice of truth and reason in the demented world of this play. He deploys his pint-sized feistiness with fervor, and squeezes ever drop of comedy and horror from the script.
Finally, Anthony J. Grande is hilarious as the sociopathic and opportunistic, yet irresistibly charismatic Mr. Sloane. He is the bleached blond blank slate onto which Kath and Ed project their unfulfilled desires, and Grande gives a wonderfully underplayed performance.
Natale’s direction makes excellent use of the circular Andrews Theatre space. The production moves briskly, and gives these expert comic actors space to breath life into their roles. The play remains fresh, and while it may no longer be shocking, it still inspires irreverent joy.
"Entertaining Mr. Sloane"
4 stars (out of four)
Presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company, through June 30, at Andrews Theatre (625 Main St.). Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20 -$45 (853-ICTC).