Hearing the title of this play conjures up the image of something dreadful: a stuffy costume drama, a ‘comedy’ of errors, or a farce by some witless Oscar Wilde wannabe. Those labels couldn’t be further from the truth.
This play, after all, comes from the delightfully twisted mind of Joe Orton, the biggest rockstar in British theatre since, well, Oscar Wilde. His dialogue could be read aloud by the most amateur of community theatres and still be wildly entertaining. Thankfully, the McGill Players’ Theatre’s production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane does so much more than that, managing to elevate the material beyond its already unimpeachable status.
The play centers around a boyish, pansexual sociopath (the titular Mr. Sloane, played by Daniel Carter) who comes into the lodging of a family comprised of a flirtatious sister (Pam Austin), a shrewd brother (Stephen Reimer), and an ailing father (Frederick Gietz). As the family members become more acquainted with Sloane, they become increasingly entangled in his web of manipulations until everything falls apart in a poignant and satisfying third act.
The key to the story is that every character is a terrible person in one way or another—but no one is worse than Mr. Sloane. While the other characters betray each other for understandable reasons, Mr. Sloane manipulates others simply for his own amusement. Although Sloane’s lack of purpose could make the play feel aimless, director Nikolay Shargorodsky chooses to play up the sexual politics underlying the plot, which infuses the action with some needed weight and perspective.
The performances are often pitch perfect, albeit a tad inconsistent at times. At first, Carter doesn’t seem to grasp the confidence needed for the title role, but he greatly improves by the time Act II rolls around. His performance reaches its apex in a scene where Sloane commits an act of cruelty. As the light behind his eyes extinguishes, we see just what kind of psycho we’re dealing with. This kind of acting can’t be easy to pull off—it’s a testament to Carter’s abilities that he is able to balance this dark side with a brattish impudence, never losing sight of who his character really is.
More sympathetic is Austin, as a middle-aged divorcee and landlady to Sloane. She takes a role that could very easily become that of a cloying sexpot and manages to undercut it with a gasping loneliness that adds another dimension to the character.
Perhaps the most consistently great performance comes from Reimer, who really understands how to sell a funny line. He has the gestures of the classic straight man, alternating proper and exasperated.
Rounding out the cast is Gietz, who absolutely nails the physicality and frailty of his character, but tends to exaggerate dialogue that would benefit from a subtler interpretation. Altogether, the cast really sells the rhythm of the dialogue. One of the great joys of the play is seeing the characters interact in different permutations and bounce wit off of each other.
The set itself is rather bare-boned—a few chairs, a couch, some dressers and some lamps stand atop a stark white floor. Instead of having flashy design of a big-budget play, the props act as more of a backdrop, letting the actors fill the stage with their performances (with the help of the production staff’s stellar blocking).
The standout element of the production is the lighting. Although its function is utilitarian for the majority of its run, when it changes, it manages to alter the tone of the play, throwing shadows across the set and deepening our thematic understanding of the characters. Such added depth illustrates how much thought was put into the production.
Overall, Entertaining Mr. Sloane is a thoroughly entertaining and engaging production and a strong start to the Players’ Theatre fall season.
Entertaining Mr. Sloane is playing at Players’ Theatre from Sept. 25 to Sept. 28. All shows begin at 8 p.m. Student admission is $6.