Playwright Joe Orton was never one to shy away from shock. Back in relatively staid 1962, he and his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, were jailed for defacing library books by replacing innocuous jacket blurbs with painstakingly pasted-on and vulgar alternatives of their own composition. Orton's status as dramatic bad boy was permanently enhanced when Halliwell bludgeoned him to death with a hammer in a 1967 murder-suicide. In one of life's blacker jokes, 1964's Entertaining Mr. Sloane features a beating death. Even before it happens, one has a sense that someone's going to get it sooner or later--it's just a matter of who. This Jungle staging is darkly malevolent and electrically witty and, while it provokes moments of claustrophobia both enjoyable and otherwise, it represents an impressive meshing of charisma, talent, and experience.
The set, designed by John Clark Donahue, is a cozy take on a British working-class home in the '60s. The plaster is peeling and the bric-a-brac is thick. The place is populated by Kath (Sally Wingert), middle-aged and lonely, and her aged father Kemp (Bain Boehlke). The action begins when Kath brings home a stray in the form of Sloane, a handsome, blond-haired hustler who begins sizing things up for personal gain the instant he walks through the door. A similar premise would later fuel Six Degrees of Separation, another epoch-defining play.
Justin Kirk, an Emmy nominee for his work in Angels in America, plays the scoundrel with leering contempt for everything around him, measuring the angles when Kath sets about seducing him--and when her brother Ed (Richard S. Iglewski) takes a lascivious interest in him as well. Kirk's role requires him mainly to exude sleazy sexiness and a general sense of disgust. As the fulcrum for a boatload of kinky weirdness, Kirk entirely supplies what is necessary.
Soon enough Sloane is done up in leather and employed by Ed, who erupts in girlish titters whenever Sloane condescends to speak to him. Iglewski is consistently funny, using his bulk to comedic effect in playing a man entirely oblivious to his own deep ridiculousness. Some of the biggest laugh lines are reserved for Wingert, though--she dives deep into the musty psyche of a character with a strangely checkered background, a woman who goes into raptures over Sloane's bare ass, then wants him to call her "Mommy" when they seal the deal. She also makes sinister use of a certain vocal tone, more Aspartame than treacle, to infuse the most demented lines with sweetness.
Under Donahue's direction, the cast gives us fascinating behavioral detail without trying for audience sympathy. On opening night, part of the fun was in gauging the audience's reaction when the wheels finally came off Kath's mental wagon. Wingert had given us a start when she came out for the second half--both she and Boehlke looked as though they had aged years in the six-month span between the acts--and she played Kath's breakdown as straight as anything in the show. Yet a good portion of the audience was laughing at her. It felt as though Orton, and Wingert, had achieved a strange success. Kath is fundamentally ridiculous and diseased, and by the end we see she is possessed of a total lack of nobility. Laughing at her woes is as appropriate a reaction as any.
Boehlke's return to the stage as a doddering old man is an exercise in transformation. Kemp is a broken-down dump truck with a staggering walk and a stare of frustrated befuddlement. Boehlke plays him as a cantankerous bastard (with a penchant for flatulence) whose last stand against Sloane is probably the play's only moment of redemptive action--and it is nothing more than an act of stubborn bloody-mindedness.
Entertaining Mr. Sloane was probably a lot more shocking when it was first produced in the '60s, but the malignancy of its view of humanity has endured. This cast and director have taken a work that was perhaps not much interested in being liked, and applied so much energy and craft to it that its black heart emerges with a shine. You may laugh, you may be horrified. Either way, you may well squirm while trying to determine why.