Moral surgery

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  March 24, 2010

Amorality is a well-worn slipper in Entertaining Mr. Sloane (at the BCA Plaza through April 3), and the Publick Theatre slips into it like Cinderella reunited with her glimmering glass shoe. Whereas murdered Brit playwright Joe Orton's no-longer-shocking anarchic farces can strain to launch their whirligigs of outrage, the 1964 Sloane, an absurdist domestic comedy set against a backdrop of floral upholstery and cracked crockery, goes about its Freudian business with cozy aplomb, threading sex and violence into a worn fabric of middle-class propriety while making its point that if the heart is a lonely hunter, it is also a ruthless one. And director Eric C. Engel, fielding an adept all-British cast, gets the mix of polite desperation and polymorphous perversion just right.

As the play begins, middle-aged Kath is offering to rent a room to the eponymous cherub she's picked up at the library. And as she bustles about, waggling her allurements while offering tea and maternal sympathy, it's painfully obvious that more is on offer than accommodation. But Kath's old "dada," Kemp, distrusts the young man from the get-go; it seems he has a bead on Sloane's criminal past and will not let it go — any more than he will the grudge against Kath's brother, Ed, to whom he hasn't spoken since discovering him, as a teen, "committing some kind of felony in the bedroom." When the repressed if entrepreneurial Ed shows up and also wants a piece of pretty young Sloane, things get complicated.

The sight of Sloane splay-legged in his underwear and being doctored by Kath after getting stabbed by the dada with a crumpet-toasting fork might seem a bit much if you haven't seen the photo of the dramatist in briefs in the exact same position in John Lahr's Orton biography, Prick Up Your Ears. The delight of this production is that it goes merrily along with the insinuative excess without sacrificing either the sadness or the edginess of a tale in which the characters will stoop to any crisply worded rationalization — not to mention lethal violence — to assuage their loneliness or achieve a bit of pinch-and-tickle. And the actors are terrific, putting across the perfectly calibrated, Pinteresque rhythms of the play (which recalls The Caretaker). Harvard senior Jack Cutmore-Scott, callow and opportunistic but also wounded as the "easily led" Sloane, holds his own against veterans Nigel Gore, flexing authority and need as Ed, and Dafydd Rees, convincingly blind as obdurate old Kemp. Best of all, Sandra Shipley as Kath, in housedress or peignoir, anxiously cowering before her brother or hilariously engineering her fussy seductions, is the perfect marriage of doormat and cougar.

As with Mae West, goodness has nothing to do with Shakespeare's Iago, the villainous crux of Othello (presented by Actors' Shakespeare Project at Villa Victoria Center for the Arts through April 4). It's always a cautionary fascination to watch the treacherous ancient lure the noble Moor down the darkest alley of his volatile nature. But at ASP, in the lanky, rambunctious person of Ken Cheeseman, he does so with such breakneck, bravura relish that the Moor seems dense indeed not to suspect this intensely blue-eyed monster's conjuration of the green-eyed one. And Judy Braha's militarist production, set in a "near future" when Venice's Senate is a multi-cultural counsel of women, takes its cue from Cheeseman, choosing thunderous action over more subtle craft. The actor-driven troupe's Othello is a real barnstormer that will rivet your attention if not break your heart.

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