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Review: If You Like Your Comedy Black, Hot City's "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" Is A Must See

(Courtesy of Todd Studio)

If you like your comedy dark and twisted, irreverent and absolutely “for adults only,” you’ve probably been a fan of HotCity Theatre for ages; and their latest offering, Entertaining Mr. Sloane by Joe Orton, shouldn’t be missed. First, it’s a rare chance to see Orton’s first play, written in 1964. While no longer scandalous, it’s a great touchstone to see how far we have evolved. Second, it has some of the strongest technical elements I’ve seen to date in the Kranzberg Art Center’s black box theater. Third, the pre-eminent comic actor in town, Lavonne Byers, leads the able cast.

I’ve been a fan of Ms. Byers for almost fifteen years now and have seen most of what she has done in that time. This production is some of her finest comic work. If you want a lesson in how farce and physicality should be done, prepare to be schooled by Byers and her Dada, Bill Grivna. It takes a commitment to the character and the ability to play beyond, but not too far beyond, reality; that’s where the humor happens. Byers does this by keeping her character’s face and eyes all innocence and confusion, while her hands grip, grope, press and prod Mr. Sloane’s young, supple flesh with the skill of a woman buying a young stallion. Her transitions from vulnerable to sexy to hurt to vengeful are mercurial and persuasive.

Paul Cereghino plays a sexy, scrumptious Sloane, sure of his youthful charm. Grivna’s physicality for Kemp, or Dada as he is called by Byers’ character, Kath, almost convinced me he had aged twenty years since I last saw him (a month ago) and he keeps his work focused and clean throughout.

The play is an exploration of the hypocrisy Orton saw in middle class British society, in an era when he, as an openly gay man, could have been arrested at any time. Kath and her brother Ed, played by Michael James Reed, both live “upstanding lives” in public but have dark, salacious secrets. Enter Mr Sloane, needing a place to live, bringing out the secrets and scandals of the brother -sister duo and bringing his own enigma into Kath’s house. Only Dada, who pays dearly for the knowledge, sees him for the conniver he is. I wonder if Orton had a premonition when he wrote the scene where Sloane punishes Dada for what he knows.

Credit (Courtesy of Todd Studio)
Hot City's "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" (L to R: Bill Grivna, Paul Cereghino).

Entertaining Mr Sloane is not as strong a play as Orton’s later work, What the Butler Saw, produced by HotHouse Theatre in 2001 (before merging with City Theater to become HotCity.) The main weakness comes in the second act where Orton doesn’t seem to be sure if he is writing a sex farce, a who-dunnit or a cautionary tale and the ending doesn’t ring with truth or believability. Adding to the inherent flaws, Reed and Cereghino have a long, drawn-out scene in the second act where the “creepy” factor outweighs the comedy. If there is no real desire on Ed’s part, it calls into question the play’s ending, and it appeared Ed’s desire for Mr Sloane was lukewarm at best. Picking up the pace in that scene would also help. But, this in no way hindered my enjoyment. Director Bill Whitaker gets the best from his cast and generally, they outperform the script.

This is one of the strongest shows, technically, that I have seen in recent HotCity history. C. Otis Sweezey’s set is gorgeous, solid and solidly middle class, the set dressings, Meg Brinkley’s props, Becky Fortner’s costumes, Zoe C. Sullivan’s jazzy sound design and Sean Savoie’s lights create the perfect mood and time. Kudos on great work and excellent teamwork.

So, if you like your comedy black, or you adore Lavonne Byers the way I do, don’t miss HotCity’s Entertaining Mr Sloane. It continues at the Kranzberg Arts Center through September 21st.

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