There is a particular prop set up in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane that vividly distills both the essence of the play and the essential spirit of the playwright. One of the characters brings it out just before the darkest elements of the story begin to reveal themselves: a little garden gnome subtly placed in passing upon a dresser in the background that watches over events unfolding like some mocking deity having a chuckle over humanity’s irrationality, lust for power, and quick willingness to overlook transgressions extending even to the degree of murder if it serves their own selfish desires.
Indeed, Orton’s play—one of the handful he wrote before he was bludgeoned to death by his long-time lover, Kenneth Halliwell, who proceeded to kill himself with pills—is a tale of deep pain finding serious catharsis by parading around in the exaggerations of a hysterically farcical mask. Yes, it is a hilarious piece of theatre, sometimes all the more so because it is so uncomfortable that laughter serves as the only route of escape.
Directed by Craig Smith, this revival of Entertaining Mr. Sloane is a production of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, performed at the Wild Project. The plot revolves around Mr. Sloane (Matt Baguth), a seemingly innocent young man who takes a room as a lodger in the house of Kath (Elise Stone), a forty-year-old woman who seems to be looking for a sex toy and a pseudo-child in one body, and who lives with her father, the “Dada,” or Kemp (John Lenartz), who is on the edge of senility and harbors a vague recollection of Mr. Sloane as the murderer of his former employer. Soon there enters into the picture Ed (Antonio Edwards Suarez), Kath’s wealthy brother who almost immediately begins to lust after Mr. Sloane in his own way and hires him as his personal valet, giving Mr. Sloane for a uniform leather pants, a tight white tee-shirt, and a little leather cap. What follows is a twisted sex-triangle and power-struggle wherein Mr. Sloane manipulates everybody until he loses the upper-hand after a violent encounter with the “Dada.”
Orton’s dialogue is fast, witty, and deceptively complex, such that it has the actors here almost chasing after it at times and tripping here and there over their dubiously assumed accents. Treading along the brittle ground that it does, carrying such weighty comedy over the dark and disturbing tragedy lying just under the floorboards, there are a couple of moments when the underlying pain is unintentionally allowed to override the humor. As manic as it is, however, there are plenty of beats to leave those moments behind, and when the actors do hit the right beats, as they do more often than not, it is deliriously funny. Stone and Baguth, in their exchanges, complement the dialogue with just the right mannerisms, body language, and affectations, and there is an obvious understanding of the importance of physicality in this particular play.
The end result is a grotesquely clownish scenario that is as humorously alleviating as it is psychologically unsettling.