Entertaining Mr. Sloane: A Dark, Inky Farce

The setup:

Scrumptious is not an adjective often applied to the subversive work of playwright Joe Orton, but in Country Playhouse's delicious rendition of his first major hit, Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964), there's no other way to describe it: appetizing, delectable, toothsome, yummy.

The execution: Low-rent hustler Mr. Sloane (Shawn Everiss), an amoral opportunist of the highest order, is picked up by blowsy widow Kath (Maria O. Sirgo), who hopes to supplement her meager income by renting out a room in her Dadda's (John Kaiser) dilapidated row house -- it's the only house on the block ever built in the urban subdivision, and now the property next door is the local dump.

Kath needs the rent, but wants something more, and the young, lithe Mr. Sloane, he of the bleached blond hair and easy manner, is not above giving her whatever she wants. Sickly Dadda, doddering and toasting his crumpets by the fire grate, has suspicions since young Sloane looks just like the thug who earlier viciously murdered his boss.

Kath's brother Ed (Bryan Maynard), a successful businessman and closet leather queen, who visits Kath to arrange Dadda's being put in a home, spies Mr. Sloane, rumpled and just out of bed with shirt askew, and goes immediately gaga. He wants him, too. The family intercourse...ahh, I mean to say, interplay...of how Mr. Sloane, entertaining as he may be, entertains them all in crazy-quilt ways is the heart of Orton's deeply inky farce. The family trio, invaded by this studly trick, undergoes transformations and sexual gymnastics until equilibrium is achieved, much to the surprise of Mr. Sloane, who once had the upper hand. The trick becomes the tricked.

There's no one like Orton for showing society's moral hypocrisy and rubbing it in our blanched faces. Everything's fair game in his world as long as you play by your own rules and don't give in to what's perceived as right and good. Everyone's an animal, don't deny it. If you think you're better than anyone else -- be it because of sex, magnetism or Q factor -- be warned, your time is coming. In Orton's universe, your time is up. "Don't pretend" is his motto, and the world will be your oyster. Take your pleasure where you may.

Director Jim Tommaney (one of Houston Press's theater critics) wisely overlays just the correct tone to this rebellious comedy of bad manners, and the ensemble cast could not be bettered. Everiss, faux blond and languid, personifies Orton's rent-boy lounge lizard, who becomes the blank slate upon which everyone writes in his own cursive script. Evasive and illusive, he'll say whatever he thinks anyone wants to hear, answering in platitudes and generalities to make nice and get out of trouble. Dangerous and violent when pushed to the wall, though, he perches warily on the arm of the worn sofa, a vulture waiting for his chance to pounce. He thinks he knows how to manipulate these rubes, who only want him for his youthful energy and sex appeal, and he plays them against each other like a master strategist -- until Orton turns the tables with neat vengeance.

Sirgo is perfection as over-the-hill Kath, who assumes her flimsy red peignoir will turn Sloane's head. Her low-down Islington accent, heavily breathy and easy on the uptake, makes Kath both a sentimentalist and a realist, or one not to be taken at face value. She's cleverer than she thinks.

Maynard, as not-so-closeted Ed, appropriately proper and stuffy at first, slyly reveals his sleazy underbelly when he sets out to ensnare Sloane -- and, later, Kath -- in his sticky little trap. Kaiser, as addled Dadda, has found his apogee with this role. He's wondrously theatrical, as always, and makes this sickly old man truly unforgettable. His lethal confrontation scene with Mr. Sloane, the last conversation he will ever have, is replete with physical detailing and finely etched characterization. All four of them play together beautifully, balancing Orton's dark world view with equally funny scene-stealing. It's a quartet made in heaven. The verdict: If Oscar Wilde had been born 80 years later, he very well might have become Joe Orton. The underlying themes of pretense and tweaking the establishment are very similar, as is Orton's love of witty epigrams and a play's well-made construction. Orton was the really bad boy of English letters, and his work, certainly in this loving production from Country Playhouse, is as refreshing as a slap.

That Orton died at the shocking young age of 34 in 1967, by being bludgeoned to death with a hammer by his lover Kenneth Halliwell just when his acclaim was hitting the heights, is one of theater's great losses. Halliwell committed suicide immediately after the murder by swallowing a bottle of Nembutal. What remains of Orton are three marvelous classic comedies (Loot and What the Butler Saw, the others), a few teleplays, a novel and a diary. His work endures, and Entertaining Mr. Sloane is fitting tribute. Go see it! Joe Orton's disturbingly funny farce plays through May 26, with a Sunday matinee May 20, in the Black Box at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. Purchase tickets online at the theater's website or call 713-467-4497. $19-$22.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover