Theater review, 'Entertaining Mr. Sloane' at Next Theatre

Juvenile DelinquencyEnglandCrime, Law and JusticeBlackmail and ExtortionSocial IssuesCrimeThe Sopranos (tv program)

Vacuous but gorgeous young fellows in towels have disrupted plenty of middle-age relationships over the years — not to mention destroying plenty of political careers on both sides of the Atlantic. But when the redoubtable Joe Orton wrote "Entertaining Mr. Sloane," the objectification of a young male body in the theater still was a radical notion.

By 1964, hardly swinging London barely was au fait with Bond girls and Michael Caine's busty dates, but the daring Orton posited something entirely different in his first stage play: nasty young man as object of pan-sexual desire. It caused quite a scandale at the time — and the work had its premiere at London's Arts Club, a theater that avoided censorship laws by purporting to admit members only. Requirements to join were, to say the least, lax.

In "Entertaining Mr. Sloane," open to all at Evanston's Next Theatre, the titular buff lodger is presented with a proposition by a seemingly respectable brother and sister — namely, that he might like to kill the siblings' irritating and elderly father.

Once he does so — in the kind of scene currently beloved by "The Sopranos" — the young man is blackmailed into sexual slavery. If he does not adequately service this weird couple, they threaten to reveal his crime.

Orton's point at the time, of course, was to subvert all the traditional mores of the boring British town, where he believed the lace curtains barely concealed the true passions of the provinces. Unlike Orton's "What the Butler Saw," "Sloane" is no farce, but a wicked domestic comic satire with the kind of roots that inspired the likes of Dennis Potter, Nicky Silver and Christopher Durang to push the shock quotient far further.

With the fall of the universal prudishness that Orton so despised in the England of the early 1960s, "Sloane" cannot survive now on sensationalism alone, even if Jason Loewith's right-headed — although overly slow — Next production has enough disturbing images to provoke some gurgles of surprise from the audience.

Rather, a modern production needs period details, Pinteresque menace and gobs of unadulterated truth. As with Silver and Durang, if overblown archetype takes control in an Orton play, the whole enterprise tends to go up in flames.

Happily, there's a lot to admire in Loewith's carefully cast production. In the title role, Brian Hammen not only looks the part, he also dances deliciously from malevolence to vulnerability to sheer stupidity. And Maury Cooper manages not to turn the doomed Father into a gibbering idiot, which is no mean feat.

The middle-class brother and sister are rather harder to play. Wendy Robie makes zanier choices than the character demands, but it's still an empathetic performance. And Larry Neumann Jr. offers an occasionally dazzling take on the repressed gay Brit — even if his John Cleese accent takes the play's latent class issues rather too far.

Last Sunday afternoon, at least, the audience at Next didn't seem to know what to make of this strange piece. That seemed to make the actors palpably insecure, resulting is some mangled comic timing and scenes in which actors were pushing too hard.

It's no laugh riot and never was meant to be. But this play is a terrifying exploration of the havoc that can be wrought by the young and the desirable.

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