Bordered by stuffed garbage bags is the maintained if tired home of the middle aged Kath and her elderly father Kemp. They can’t afford pretensions of high fashion but, when push comes to shove, they can hold an aristocratic wealth of politeness. These two, together with at once brother and estranged son Ed, make for a dysfunctional family the likes of which would make Tennessee Williams balk. Though, they make themselves perfectly at home in playwright Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane. This production, by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble and under the direction of Craig Smith, shakes off the inherent structures for comedy in the piece in favor of a more grounded character driven humor. While this does undermine some of the work’s fire, it made for a natural platform to the talents of the performers.
The play opens on Kath welcoming Mr. Sloane, a well built young man, as a tenant. Her father has misgivings, he privately confronts Mr. Sloane verging on an accusation of murder, but is swiftly dismissed upon the intervention of Kath. However, the person who she can’t dismiss is her wealthy brother Ed. Ed, disappointed at the prospect of a new romantic escapade for his sister, enters and looks a then shirtless Mr. Sloane over (and over, and over once more.) Once alone with Mr. Sloane he disparages his sister, requests to Mr. Sloane that he keeps his distance from her, and then offers to bring him under his employment as a driver. This position is of course to keep him moral and offer Mr. Sloane a decent pension. The leather uniform is simply part of the package.
Mr. Sloane, who has kept a Pinter-esque distance and polite even tempered manner as he plays the sibling’s attitudes off of one another, gratefully accepts the position and then, when alone with Kath, betrays the first part of the agreement by sleeping with her. In act two the play goes the way of soap opera, a positive aspect here, with betrayals, sexual tension, and murder. Though, it is only when all is at its worst that a tone of reason is reintroduced to the home and an absurd deal is pleasantly bargained. The high virtue of this production is found in the performances by the cast which, in the nature of this Ensemble, is distinctly excellent. As the enticing and polite Mr. Sloane Matt Baguth keeps his calm and loses his head with equal force. His intentions evade the audience’s grasp. He plays the family off of each other the entire time holding his cards close to his chest noncommittally, allowing all those around him to raise the stakes. As the dotty father, who seems the maddest of all them but is the only voice of reason, John Lenartz comes in thunderously. Even this character doesn’t transcend his pride and expectations for respect and is so susceptible to the goadings of the young Mr. Sloane. Antonio Edwards Suarez is wonderfully leering as Ed. A master politician, he fully holds many positions at once. He looks down at Mr. Sloane, he desires Mr. Sloane, he is disgusted by his sister, he worships his sister, he dismisses his father, he desperately wants his father’s recognition. This isn’t an easy character to make real given these numerous contradictions, but Suarez succeeds. Lastly, as Kath Elise Stone displays one of my favorite attributes found in a performer, that being the ability to go for broke at every turn without an ounce desperation. In addition, she takes this virtue one further as she never once abandons Kath to a plane of parody. This character is no doubt loosely tethered to reality, yet Ms. Stone gives her a warm passion.
The directorial rendering of the piece is as a Williams-esque dysfunctional family with simply a more diverse array of skeletons in the closet. The humor, and to be sure the production keeps its good humor, is in immediate character conflict. Most of the laughs go to the smiling Kath, and the poorly veiled seductions of Ed. In the program director Craig Smith writes “...it was not the wit and sexual farce that I found appealing. It was the dark, deep tragedy of broken families...” While it takes a great deal of maturity to abandon the low hanging fruit of shock based entertainment in favor of a more elusive depth, in a well made comedy the comedic structure will provide an informative blueprint to its artistic ambition in the same way a musical might with music. We don’t think of the music as being adjacent to the plot of “Chicago.” The music, regardless how populist in form, is essential to the power of the work. It also just happens to be a common place of intellectual and/or emotional entry. Joe Orton wrote an England where the respectability of appearances outmoded the respectability of actions. Often in this production the varnish of presumed aristocracy is too easily dismissed by these characters for their heightened passions.
Costume designer Debbi Hobson smartly offers us style without fashion in this grubby home. Scenic and lighting designer Tony Mulanix creates an atmosphere of the haphazard made orderly. Ellen Mandel’s music, at its best when at its most original, proffers a film noir dignity and at times high melodramatic form to the play.
ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE
By Joe Orton
In Performance Until May 14th Tickets: $25
The Wild Project: 195 East 3rd St. Directed by Craig Smith
Cast: Elise Stone, Matt Baguth, John Lenartz, Antonio Edwards Suarez
Stage Manager: Claudia Rivera
Assistant Director: Karen Case Cook
Vocal Coach: Josh Moser
Fight Choreographer: Greg Pragel
Costume Designer: Debbi Hobson
Scenic and Lighting Designer: Tony Mulanix
Sound Design and Original Music: Ellen Mandel
Video Design: Kerem SmithStone
Marketing and Social Media: Kelly Erickson
Graphic Design: Ariel Estrada
Photographer: Gerry Goodstein