Entertaining Mr. Sloane

Next Theatre Company

John Kingsley “Joe” Orton, enfant terrible of 1960s British theater, would have turned 70 on January 1. If he’d lived–if his unstable boyfriend, failed writer Kenneth Halliwell, hadn’t bashed in the sleeping Orton’s head with a hammer before taking a drug overdose on August 9, 1967–where would he be now? Would the brilliant brat whose sexually charged comedies outraged or titillated audiences (and perplexed the lord chamberlain’s office, whose power to censor theater was abolished in 1968) be a grand old man of modern drama or a washed-up hack trying to reclaim his fame? Would the impudent iconoclast and sexual anarchist of 40 years ago be writing scripts for Queer as Folk or punching up one-liners for Hollywood Squares? How would the promiscuous proselytizer for promiscuity have responded to the sometimes strident politics of gay liberation, the AIDS crisis, and the assimilationist movements for same-sex marriage and gays in the military?

Happily, local admirers of Orton’s small but stingingly funny oeuvre have more to sustain them than mere speculation. Whether by coincidence or design, Orton’s birthday is being marked by revivals of his first and final full-length plays. Earlier this season the Noble Fool Theater Company presented What the Butler Saw, completed a month before Orton’s death. Now Evanston’s Next Theatre is offering Entertaining Mr. Sloane, which introduced Orton to London audiences in 1964–and which he dedicated to the mentor-lover who would murder him three years later.

There are sharp differences between the two plays. What the Butler Saw is a frenetic, frothy farce-cum-burlesque about sexual shenanigans in a madhouse whose operators are crazier than their patients (the operators’ playmates turn out to be their own teenage offspring). Entertaining Mr. Sloane is a dark comedy about a young drifter who exposes repressed desires and suppressed secrets in a middle-class family. Both exuberantly embrace forbidden pleasures and delight in addressing topics that most viewers would have found unlikely fodder for fun–homosexuality, incest, fetishism, illegitimate pregnancy. Entertaining Mr. Sloane is less laugh-out-loud funny than What the Butler Saw, its eroticism both less overt and more perverse. But it’s pure pleasure to sit back and watch its sly, sinister plot take shape.

Orton’s sexual unorthodoxy is a means to an end: in both these works he fries much bigger fish than merely who does what to whom. Both depict the destruction of a morally proper old order–symbolized in Sloane by a doomed elderly man and in Butler by the preserved phallus of Winston Churchill–and its replacement by a generation that publicly promotes traditional values but practices amoral self-indulgence. The focus of both is the institution of the family, which supposedly nurtures proper values and provides the foundation of a healthy, virtuous society. In Orton’s view, society is neither virtuous nor healthy. It’s a rubbish heap governed by a repressive, reactionary, misogynistic old boys’ network. The male authority figures in these plays are phony paragons of responsibility and rectitude whose sexual hypocrisy is a manifestation of deeper corruption. If these blokes would only own up to their own repression–not only their homosexual inclinations but their fundamental promiscuity–the world would be a better, happier place, Orton suggests. Instead, society is a hotbed of humbuggery, with emphasis on the buggery.

Entertaining Mr. Sloane takes place in the sitting room of a modest middle-class home in the English Midlands. Situated next to a garbage dump (a running gag concerns the characters’ reactions to the smell every time they open the window), the house is inhabited by slightly dotty 41-year-old Kath and her doddering father, whom she calls “the Dadda.” Kath has a bachelor brother named Ed, a seemingly straitlaced businessman who takes pride in having “a certain amount of influence. Friends with money. I’ve two cars.”

Enter Mr. Sloane. Very young, very good-looking, and slightly mysterious, he arrives at Kath’s home as a lodger and by the end of his first night there has become her lover. The simpering, sentimental Kath calls herself “mamma” and proclaims Sloane her “big heavy baby”–a replacement for the illegitimate infant she gave up for adoption some years earlier. Ed in turn dubs Sloane his “boy” (or “the kiddie”), warns him against dallying with “birds” and “tarts,” and hires him as a chauffeur–uniforming him in leather pants and cap. Ed also sets himself up as a surrogate father after learning that Sloane is an orphan (images of Dickensian deprivation spring to mind)–and that the all-male orphanage (eight to a room) was outfitted with a gym (cue images from a decidedly different literary genre). If Kath’s traditional maternal duties in this twisted pseudofamily are to clean, cook, and copulate, the paternal responsibility is to impart moral “principles.” “Why am I interested in your welfare?” Ed lectures Sloane. “Why do thinking men everywhere show young boys the strait and narrow? Flash cheque-books when delinquency is mentioned? Support the Scout-movement?”

Sloane’s presence rouses long suppressed lusts in the closeted Ed and love-starved Kath–desires that expose hidden domestic secrets. Further complicating the situation is the strained relationship between Ed and the Dadda, who hasn’t spoken to his son since he found him “committing some kind of felony in the bedroom” 20 years earlier. (The play was written three years before Parliament did away with the law against “gross indecency” under which Oscar Wilde was convicted.) “That kind of thing happens often, I believe,” Sloane cheekily replies. “For myself, I usually lock the door.” In a dangerous development, the Dadda recognizes Sloane for what he is–a killer on the lam. Oh well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?

Sloane, as he tells his new faux father, is “an all-rounder–in anything you care to mention.” He’s ready, willing, and able to screw women as well as men. Orton deliberately defied prevailing stereotypes of homosexuals as sweet, sexless sissies (like the gay boy in Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 A Taste of Honey who helps the heroine raise her illegitimate child), campy clowns (like the characters that Orton’s pal Kenneth Williams played in the “Carry On” films of the 60s), and doomed, guilt-ridden victims (like the suicidal husband whose death haunts Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire or the predatory Sebastian Venable in his Suddenly Last Summer). Orton’s queers are masculine men who happen to enjoy same-sex relations. Yet they’re hardly icons of gay pride: Sloane is a scheming rough-trade hustler, and Ed is a hypocrite who credits his professional success to having sacrificed his long-ago relationship with an alluring “matie.”

With its portrayal of sexy young men and manipulative parent figures, Entertaining Mr. Sloane suggests the influence of Edward Albee’s 1960 The American Dream and 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There are also similarities to Harold Pinter’s 1965 The Homecoming, in which an Englishman’s American wife is recruited by his father and brothers as their resident whore. Orton’s plot oddly echoes that of Emlyn Williams’s 1935 thriller Night Must Fall, in which a charming psychopath insinuates himself into the home and heart of his intended victim.

Entertaining Mr. Sloane also has some parallels to Euripides’ The Bacchae, written in the fifth century BC. There another enigmatic stranger– the god Dionysus–brings liberating but dangerous sensuality to Thebes, infecting its women with ecstatic madness and then bewitching King Pentheus into discovering his pent-up passions. Kath’s salacious compliments to Sloane on his smooth, pale complexion recall Pentheus’s first words to Dionysus: “What fair skin you have….It comes from the night / When you hunt Aphrodite with your beauty….Tell me the benefits / That those who know your mysteries enjoy.” Replies Dionysus with seductive vagueness: “I am forbidden to say. But they are worth knowing.” Orton’s work invites comparison to that of artists in other fields, including stand-up comic Lenny Bruce and novelist Terry Southern. Like them–and like Albee, Pinter, and Euripides–Orton uses unorthodox sexuality to expose established moral attitudes as empty posturing.

Launching his tenure as Next’s artistic director, Jason Loewith mostly does justice to the play. His ensemble–Larry Neumann Jr. as Ed, Wendy Robie as Kath, Maury Cooper as the Dadda, and Brian Hamman as Sloane–captures Orton’s deadpan humor, which derives its strength from implying rather than explicitly depicting the characters’ twisted power games. Handsome, dyed-blond Hamman is a delight as he toys with Kath and Ed, casually displaying his lithe physique in impromptu calisthenics (including wrist curls with a ceramic gnome) or lolling provocatively on the sofa in his leather trousers and tight T-shirt. Robie–who recalls the late, great Estelle Winwood–is a pinched, parched woman who blossoms like deadly nightshade under Sloane’s influence. Best of all is Neumann, with his steel-stiff posture, clenched jaw, and measured, deliberate verbal inflections. Where Kath’s interest in Sloane is instantly evident, Ed’s homosexuality emerges slowly, coming back to life after a long hibernation. Neumann plays each beat like a miser counting out pennies to pay for a long desired feast, letting us share his growing anticipation.

Designers Matthew J. York (set), Mark Botelho (costumes), and Darin Keesing (lights) and props master Lara Maerz have collaborated to create the perfect milieu. The trim and tidy living room boasts comically clashing couch and print curtains that clash still further with Kath’s print dress; the wall is decorated not with paintings or photographs but with cheap plates adorned by ultra-English images of crowns, castles, and the Union Jack; outside the window a pile of trash rises oh-so-scenically against a perpetually gray sky. The production’s only serious slipup is its occasional bursts of music, which are not only intrusive but anachronistic: the Beatles’ “Help!” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” weren’t released until 1965 and ’68 respectively. Other than this irritating error, Next delivers an excellent production–a truly entertaining Mr. Sloane.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Knight.