Finding the Soulful, and the Entertaining, in "Sloane"
Joe Orton’s 1964 play Entertaining Mr. Sloane is a pitch-black comedy of absolutely awful manners in which a charming criminal’s intrusion on a family troubled by old secrets leads to tragedy and moral compromise.
Kath, an aging single woman--what they used to call a spinster--presides over an isolated house in the middle not of a proper neighborhood, but rather an expanse of disused land strewn with refuse and rubbish. She sees to the needs of her elderly father, Kemp, but has little in the way of fulfillment for herself--until Sloane comes into her life. Kath rents Sloane a room, but comes to see him as a prospective romantic partner.
But so does Ed, Kath’s brother, and the black sheep of the family. (The suggestion is that Ed was caught in flagrante delicto with another young man as a teen--not a minor point, given that the play premiered just a couple of years after homosexuality was decriminalized in England.) While Sloane navigates between the rivalries that exist between brother and sister, he has still another problem: he has a past-and Kemp knows about it.
The plot is as taut and fraught as anything that Orton, or any other among the best of Britain’s playwrights, have to offer. But director Eric Engel, who helms the upcoming Publick Theatre production of the play (set for a March 11--April 3 run at the Boston Center for the Arts) sees that in the middle of a complex tangle of felonious misdeeds and emotional extortion, there’s also a story about the pain of age and loneliness, and the kinds of disconnect that can fracture even the closest human bonds.
Not that Orton is necessarily out to redeem anybody or present a morality play. "I don’t know that [Orton] has a message [with Entertaining Mr. Sloane," Engel told EDGE during a recent phone interview. "I think he takes us on a journey with these characters, and I think he resists the temptation to give us a message. It’s not at all didactic--I think he explores the situations and the heartache and the loneliness, the humor and the power of love and particularly the power of youth and beauty over age and loneliness."
Added Engel, "I think what’s really beautiful about the play is at the end of the day, we feel the same about all three characters. They all do what they need to do to survive [in an emotional sense]. There are certainly moments in the play where our sympathies go one direction or the other, but I think at the end of the day we feel that they’ve all done what they needed to do."
Orton doesn’t always translate well to American theater; EDGE mentioned to Engel a painfully flat, unfunny performance of an Orton play that ran years ago in another city.
"I think it is a challenge," Engel acknowledged of bringing Orton’s work to American audiences. "Which is why I’m happy to have an all natural British cast. Not that there aren’t a lot of brilliant American actors who are capable of doing so, but it certainly has, particularly with a relatively short rehearsal process, given us a jump-start to have a cast of Brits."
EDGE inquired whether the British cast, which includes Dafydd Rees as Kemp, Jack Cutmore-Scott as Sloane, Sandra Shipley as Kath, and Nigel Gore as Ed, inform his decisions as director. "Very much," Engel said. "I think they have an innate sense of the rhythm of the play, and they also have a much deeper understanding of some of the cultural issues of the play, particularly generational issues."
Are the cast more liable to bring that trademark brand of dry, understated British humor to their performances, as opposed to a potentially broader American interpretation? "Absolutely," Engel told EDGE, adding, "The Brits always have a leg up when they are working on British playwrights, and we have a leg up when we are working on Sam Shepard and Arthur Miller."
Issues of sex and shady pasts aside, Engel notes that the play revolves around a theme of generational discord. "I think there will always be challenges with generations that have had different life experiences trying to communicate with one another, and we’ll always have lonely people in the world," Engel said. "The generational conflict is explored mainly though the older character Kemp, who is the father of the female character Kath and her brother, Ed." Moreover, "There’s a disdain from the get go between he and Sloane, largely because of the generation a gap, before we even get into all the plot’s issues."
The current generation will find plenty to admire in Orton’s play, despite its vintage age. "I think that while the issues of loneliness and repressed sexuality may be ongoing," Engel told EDGE, "we’re hopefully at a point where we’re a little more self actualized in terms of being able to acknowledge those vulnerabilities, and I think ironically we can do [this] play probably a little less stylized than it might have been done in 1964, because we recognize these issues and these tendencies more readily." So, no overblown, stereotypical mugging when it comes to the gay stuff? "Ed’s sexuality, his repressed sexuality, is painfully obvious [from the text]," said Engel. "I think that allows an actor today to play it with a lot more nuance than it might have been played originally."
This may be a comedy, but Engel told EDGE that he was aiming for the "underbelly" as much as for the funny bone. "I saw a production on the West End in February of last year that was a really lovely, professional, polished, fully realized West End production, but it lacked, for my taste, an edge and an underbelly," Engel mused. "It was a little too cute. But the irony now is that in our rehearsal process we’ve explored all those levels and now we’re working at rediscovering the comedy.
"The play deals with this repression on so many levels," Engel adds, "not just Ed and his repressed sexuality, but Kath and her loneliness, and the play takes place in this wonderful, isolated house that was meant to be the first in a series of row houses surrounded by junk--so you have this metaphor right from the get-go of these isolated, lonely souls."