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WEEKEND REVIEWS | Theater Review

A Very Entertaining 'Mr. Sloane'

A fine cast animates Joe Orton's dark comedy revolving around a manipulative boy toy.

September 25, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

The title character in Joe Orton's "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" is "lethal and charming, a combination of magical black-leather meanness and boyish innocence--a sexy shadow of Orton's fantasy of himself," wrote Orton biographer John Lahr.

When Orton created Sloane in 1963, the playwright was 30, about a decade older than the character but still young enough to feel close to this incorrigible boy toy.

If he were alive today, Orton would be 67--much closer in age to Sloane's chief victim, a spiteful and doddering old man named Kemp. One wonders if he would have a little more sympathy nowadays. Not that Orton glamorized Sloane; no one in this play would qualify as an exemplar for his or her respective generation.

In Martin Benson's perceptive and entertaining "Mr. Sloane" at South Coast Repertory, it's easy to feel a little sympathy for each of the four foolish souls on display. The actors don't take obviously superior attitudes to their characters, so it's possible for us to detect strains of our common humanity within these desperate people.

Fully inhabiting the title role is J. Todd Adams, who played a similar Orton character in "What the Butler Saw" last year at A Noise Within. Adams has a keen appreciation of Sloane's self-serving strategies. When Adams' Sloane wants to be seductive, he knows how to arouse further interest by flashing a little midriff. When he needs sympathy, he mawkishly plays the orphan card. When he has to get tough, he does so without much ado. Of course, Sloane isn't a perfectly polished con man, he's just a kid, and Adams keeps this side of him easily apparent as well.

Sloane enters the household run by lonely Kath, who admits to being 41 and who adorns her plain parlor with kitschy gnome figurines. Kath instantly sees her new lodger not only as a surrogate son but also as a potential lover boy. When he needs a bandage, Kath takes every opportunity to caress his skin as she applies it. Jane Carr plays Kath, sliding suggestively up and down her distinctive vocal register, never losing a certain spunky cheerfulness but also never completely concealing this woman's plight.

Kath isn't the only character with lust in her heart for the new lodger. Her brother Ed strives mightily, but unsuccessfully, to hide his own longings behind a facade of middle-class principles, as represented by the handsome coat provided for him by costumer Joyce Kim Lee.

Ed's initial viewing of Sloane is the one moment in the production when I felt handicapped by my seating position in the southwest corner of South Coast's Second Stage, a rectangular space with the audience on three sides. Although I could sense that Simon Billig's Ed, who had just announced his opposition to the abstract idea of a lodger staying in the family home, was beginning to change his mind now that he had seen Sloane, I couldn't see Billig's face at all.

Of course, other seats may come with their own sight line problems--this is the price that you occasionally have to pay for the privilege of being so close to the actors in this wonderfully intimate space.

Despite this missing moment in my own experience of his performance, Billig is a terrific Ed. Although he looks like a bulldog as he crusades to uphold his principles, his stern glances begin to waver at key moments, his eyes assuming a desperate quality as he beholds his own interior fervor for Sloane.

Rounding out the cast is Hal Landon Jr. as Kemp, Kath's Dadda. Landon, who has literally stood tall in many a South Coast production, is here stooped and frail, though not so frail that he fails to summon up ample reserves of crankiness.

It's difficult to imagine a better cast for this mordant comedy. The play itself isn't nearly as complicated as Orton's "Loot" (which just closed in Long Beach at International City Theatre) or his "What the Butler Saw"--it's almost as if a "Sloane" director is home free as long as the casting goes well. It went very well for Benson and company, making this the best introduction to Orton that a new generation of Southland theatergoers is likely to get any time soon.

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* "Entertaining Mr. Sloane," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays through Sundays, 7:45 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 22. $26 to $47. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Jane Carr: Kath

J. Todd Adams: Sloane

Hal Landon Jr.: Kemp

Simon Billig: Ed

Written by Joe Orton. Directed by Martin Benson. Set by Myung Hee Cho. Costumes by Joyce Kim Lee. Lighting by Geoff Korf. Stage manager Andy Tighe.

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