McGill’s Players’ Theatre begins its 2013-2014 season with Entertaining Mr. Sloane, a 1960s black comedy by English playwright Joe Orton. Sloane tells the story of a 20-year-old orphaned man, the eponymous Mr. Sloane (Daniel Carter), who takes up residence with middle-aged Kath (Pam Austin), and her father (Frederick Geitz). Kath and her brother, Ed (Stephen Reimer), are drawn to the mystery and youth of Sloane, and vie for his attention and affection, much to the dismay of their father, who profoundly distrusts the lodger. Director Nikolay Shargorodsky does his best to balance the ensuing comedy and conflict.
Right from the opening lines, when Kath and Sloane enter mid-conversation, Sloane does not cater to its audience. Shargorodsky’s describes Sloane as a “simple” show in his director’s note, and, indeed, in some aspects it is very minimal: there are only four characters, the plot itself is fairly straightforward, and the entire play takes place within one living room. But it is easy to miss the quick-witted dialogue as it flits by, or to get lost among the layers of predatory, immature and incestuous interactions between the characters. The dark humour can sometimes be unsettling. It’s often hard to tell which parts are supposed to be funny.
Kath is the only female in the show: a lonely, disconnected woman who gave up her illegitimate son for adoption when she was young. She sees her lost son in Sloane, and tries to both mother and seduce him, with a desperation accurately portrayed by Austin. Kath’s dereliction becomes occasionally painful to watch. She can appear to be an unsympathetic depiction of a 1960s woman subject to her brother’s orders and the judgments of society, which give her limited agency. Ed is also attracted to Sloane, though much less explicitly, and Sloane seems to reciprocate. Their relationship, according to Shargorodsky, is the “most honest part” of the play, likely because Orton himself was gay. Shargorodsky has succeeded in conveying that honesty: their on-stage chemistry feels genuine. The banter between Sloane and Ed is the most natural and, by consequence, the most interesting in the play, in contrast to the interactions between Kath and Sloane, which occasionally seem forced. It’s unclear whether this is a directorial decision. The individual characters and mannerisms of Ed and Sloane are well acted by Reimer and Carter, right down to Ed’s tendency to tap his index fingers together when speaking.
Aside from the relationship of Ed and Sloane, Entertaining Mr. Sloane is extremely satirical, mocking the competitive ‘sibling rivalry’ and overall selfish nature of human beings. As the play goes on and Sloane is revealed to be increasingly aggressive and immature, Kath and Ed become correspondingly more attached to him. Shargorodsky’s interpretation strives to emphasize Sloane’s child-like nature, and his tendency to act on his passions, which in turns exposes the darker tones of the play. Shargorodsky has especially focused on Sloane’s aggressiveness, again eliciting from the audience that disconcerted feeling one can only get from black comedy.
A viewer of Sloane needs to do a bit of rolling with the punches. The mood of the show switches so constantly that one scene in which Kath has broken down into tears may cause feelings of sympathy or sadness, while the next time she cries on stage could have the audience laughing out loud. This is what makes that makes Sloane so intriguing to Shargorodsky, who says that he is able to enjoy and understand “something different every time” he re-examines it. For Shargorodsky, that is where the comedy of the show lies, because “things are funny when you don’t know how you feel.”
Players’ Theatre claims that their 2013-14 season consists of shows that “juxtapose reality with what is magical and imaginative.” Entertaining Mr. Sloane is an intimate experience that certainly treads a fine line between the harsh realities of human behaviour and the absurdity and imagination of satire. Though it may very well leave you unsure of how you feel, it will provoke your thoughts on humour, family relations, and passion, and after all the aggression and desperation, it just might leave you smiling.