Monday, March 22, 2010

Misdirecting Mr. Sloane

Feel the danger? I didn't either.

Given the talented cast of the Publick Theatre's Entertaining Mr. Sloane (at the BCA though April 3), the fact that the production is an odd, earnest misfire counts as more mysterious than anything that happens onstage in Joe Orton's early black comedy (and first hit), a scabrous satire of what lurks beneath the surface of bourgeois gentility. The playwright is certainly a known quantity, and this version doesn't seem to have any kind of ART-like interpretive ambition up its sleeve; we take it as roughly a "standard issue" revival, and almost the entire cast - Sandra Shipley, Nigel Gore, and Dafydd Rees - has already won numerous local awards and accolades (the one exception is newcomer Jack Cutmore-Scott).

Yet one local critic described this production (and she meant this as a compliment) as "silly-sad." To which I can only say, wrong and even more wrong - this is a play in which a brother and sister conceal the murder of their father because they want to have sex with his killer, after all. The funny thing is, that critic's observation was accurate, even if her assessment was as loopy as the characters' morals. This production doesn't have even a distant tang of Orton's uniquely wicked, anarchic energy; it is, instead, something "silly-sad." But what went wrong, exactly? Why is the production so awkwardly saccharine? Why does it feature only one striking performance (Shipley's) when it should feature four? And how, really, could director Eric Engel emasculate this hilariously vicious play into something like Androgyny and Old Lace?

Of course perhaps it's unfair that all eyes should turn toward the director when good casts go wrong. Engel has certainly done solid work before, but usually with women, and he's clearly made one major misstep here (in the casting of the eponymous Sloane), while also failing to draw any real commitment out of either Nigel Gore or Dafydd Rees. It's possible the actors rebelled against his suggestions - I somehow sensed that Gore, at least, was uncomfortable with internalizing the malicious gayness of his character, Ed. But Rees should really have been able to play the cantankerous, doomed Kemp in his sleep.

Then there's Jack Cutmore-Scott, the British Harvard undergrad making his professional debut in the complex role of Sloane. The character is a mercurial mix of sex and opportunism, a literal killer with a killer bod to grease his way out of any scrapes his amorality might get him into (whether said grease is applied to desperate women or closeted gay men is of little import to Sloane). But while Cutmore-Scott certainly has theatrical potential, with gorgeous looks and a presence to match them, he's woefully miscast here. His "Mr. Sloane" is a confused cherub obviously on the lam from Eton, not Borstal, and the young actor simply looks lost as the character finds himself trapped in a web of his own making.

Luckily, there's Sandra Shipley to distract us from all this fumbling (although I do worry that whenever I see Shipley in an Engel production, she dominates it completely). Shipley is a bit more mature than the role's stated age of forty-one, of course, but you hardly care, as she's in fine, daft form, and game for anything - she's even a hoot in a Benny-Hill-style négligée. Still, even Shipley is a bit too - well, lovable, for lack of a better word. In fact, Sloane's too lovable, too. The trouble is that Joe Orton was not a particularly lovable playwright, and while he always has some sympathy with his characters, he also perceives (and insists on) their dark undersides. Indeed, Orton may be the only gay author I can think of who writes such unapologetic gay villains. The closeted Ed, for instance, is an utter creep, and we're meant to see him as such - a sexual predator on the down low who deploys an outraged false morality to cover his tracks. In fact, Ed almost encapsulates Orton's central themes: the hypocrisy of social convention, and the utter amorality of the drives it seeks to contain. There's nothing particularly lovable about that worldview. Which may be why this Mr. Sloane is only intermittently entertaining.