Love for sale: an entertaining ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ at Project 891

Mr. Sloane (Aaron Kirby) and Kath (Tracy Garrison) make an unlikely pair in Project 891's "Entertaining Mr. Sloane"
Since I just got done seeing Hair, which follows a tribe of hippies in Manhattan’s East Village, why not take a look at how things were transpiring on the other side of the Atlantic during the swingin’ ’60s?

Project 891’s production of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane provided the perfect opportunity.

When Orton’s black comedy premiered in London in 1964, it was considered quite controversial, drawing a wide range of responses from critics and audiences alike. Orton rebelliously upturned the social norms, wryly commenting on how the incessant English desire to “keep up appearances” has resulted in a deep and dangerous repression — sexual and otherwise.

Perhaps I might interest you with a bit of plot to go with your tea*? Kath (Tracy Garrison) is a middle-aged landlady who eagerly takes in a new tenant, Mr. Sloane (Aaron Kirby). Kath’s brother, Ed (David Schaplowsky) does not approve — that is, until he meets Mr. Sloane. Just like his sister, the sexually-repressed Ed is immediately overcome by Sloane’s charms and good looks, doing everything in his power to keep him entertained. However, Kath and Ed’s middle-aged father, Kemp (Gary Murphy), remains skeptical of Sloane, and for good reason.

This is an ideal play for an up-and-coming theatre company — such as Project 891 — to tackle. It requires a cast of four and a single set, and provides ample opportunity for actors and director to flex their dramatic and comedic muscles. However, it’s also a tricky play, in that the comedy can easily be played too broadly, skewing the entire thing from its cynical center. And then there are the accents that can trip up any good actor — especially when the phrasing of a single line can change the entire tone of a scene.

For the most part, Project 891 succeeds. Director Ron Popp smartly keeps things simple, with an uncluttered set and clear staging. However, while the talented cast does a more than admirable job, and the tone is, for the most part, right on point, it seems a few of them could have slightly raised the stakes in their performances.

Most notably, you can’t blame Garrison for the fact that she appears far too young and, well, pretty, for the role — making you think that perhaps Sloane might be attracted to her for realz. (Yes, I know Kath is only supposed to be 41 in the show, but 41 back in 1960s England looked a lot different than the 41 of today). However, because she isn’t physically ideal for the part, she could, perhaps, have played up the vulgarity and desperation. The problem is Garrison comes off as adorable, making me be “team Kath” at the end of the play — which I’m not sure is what Orton had in mind. On the other hand, the twinky Kirby is ideal physically for the sexy Mr. Sloane, but at times he seems overly reliant on his looks, and you don’t detect any real sense of the calculation, risk or danger — until it jarringly emerges at the end. Schaplowsky, however, is damn near perfect as the brother who can’t seem to let himself more than a few steps out of the closet until he slams it shut with congenial, socially acceptable banter. And Murphy is fine as the curmudgeonly father, but perhaps might have benefitted from a little more time with the dialect coach.

But, as a whole, this is a very solid and entertaining production, and I greatly look forward to what Project 891 has in store.

CTA Index Rating: 8 out of 10 (A very solid production that could benefit from a few more risks.)

“Entertaining Mr. Sloane” plays through March 27 at City Lit Theatre, 1020 West Bryn Mawr Ave. More info here >

*Admittedly lame segue.

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