No chess set appears in the 1960s living room that’s the setting for director Stephen Jarrett’s staging of “Entertaining Mr Sloane.” But you could almost swear that the board game was underway at a telling moment in the show, mounted by the Edge of the Universe Players 2 at the Writer’s Center, in Bethesda, Md.
After a series of power grabs and quietly scandalous doings in an ostensibly respectable London household, a young opportunist named Sloane (Matthew Aldwin McGee) has come up with an audacious solution to a predicament that involves his employer, Ed (Jim Jorgensen). As the two men sit next to each other on a settee, Ed processes what has been said, and Sloane shoots him a look of steely triumph. It’s a look that amounts to a smug, if possibly premature, “checkmate.”
Here and elsewhere, McGee’s mercurial Sloane is a winning gambit for this effective production of Joe Orton’s 1964 propriety-flouting play. A dark comedy that depicts vice, hypocrisy and self-indulgent sexuality roiling beneath the surface of decorous bourgeois life, “Entertaining Mr Sloane” unfurls in the home of Ed’s sister Kath (Claire Schoonover), who is renting a room to Sloane.
As played by McGee, the lodger initially exudes shy politeness. But, as Kath and Ed both lust after him, he shifts into other modes, becoming by turns flirtatious, sullen, whiny, broodingly carnal and violent. He can lay on the charm when necessary: When he sets out to get even with Kemp (David Bryan Jackson), Ed and Kath’s elderly father, who may know a terrible secret from Sloane’s past, the younger man takes care to begin the encounter with some disarmingly sunny smiles.
In the roles of Kath and Ed, Schoonover and Jorgensen don’t work on the same level of solidity and detail as McGee. Jorgensen seems a tad too melodramatic and mannered as Ed, a self-important businessman who gets breathless talking about male athletics. But Schoonover is funny as Kath, a fluttery, libidinous spinster who revels in porcelain tchotchkes and thinks nothing of strenuously mothering the young lodger she’s seducing. (When talking to Sloane, Kath refers to herself as “Mamma.”)
Jackson is hilarious as a doddering, ornery Kemp: Tottering about in a bathrobe, his eyes barely visible behind glasses with thick lenses, the actor turns Kemp’s effort to toast a crumpet — his hands shake so much he can barely get the pastry onto the fork — into a choice comic moment.
Erik Teague’s costumes help define the era and the characters (Sloane’s black leather chauffeur’s outfit is an eye-catching example). Set designer Giorgos Tsappas’s décor is equally apt. Hanging against the living room’s oppressively patterned wallpaper is a portrait of the queen. The goings-on in “Entertaining Mr Sloane” might make the monarch’s hair stand on end, but the characters would never willingly give up the trappings of gentility.
Wren is a freelance writer.
“Entertaining Mr Sloane,” by Joe Orton. Produced by the Edge of the Universe Players 2. Directed by Stephen Jarrett; lighting design, Marianne Meadows; sound, Edward Moser; properties, Kevin Laughon. Tickets: $22-25. About two hours and 10 minutes. Through Dec. 13 at the Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. Call 202-355-6330 or visit www.universeplayers2.org.