KPBS AIRDATE: JANUARY 28, 1998
In theater, as in life, there’s nothing quite so disappointing as a promise not kept. The higher the expectation, the greater the letdown. That’s how my week went, dramatically speaking; I had late-night hopes and Joe Orton dreams.
You could say that the life of British playwright Joe Orton imitated his art. Known for his campy dark comedies, filled with brutal wit and often equally brutal actions, Orton himself came to a chillingly ironic end at age 34, savagely murdered by his longtime gay lover. Orton was a child of the earth-trembling ‘60s, a time when homosexuality was still a crime in England. He loved to shock. His first play, “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” was a scandalous success in 1964. It’s a study in loneliness, deception and delusion, sibling rivalry, amorality, bisexuality, repressed homosexuality and suppressed heterosexual passion that spawn murder, violence and emotional blackmail.
Now along comes Russell Copley, a native South African and recent San Diego transplant, who’s making his producing and directing debut here with the first local production of “Mr. Sloane.” An auspicious event… but a frustrating one. While Copley (no relation to the newspaper family) has assembled a competent cast who try to deliver nuanced performances, his production highlights the play’s sense of menace but shows no sense of humor. Orton’s work may be dark and twisted, but it’s always billed as comedy. None of the bleak, black irony or satire comes through here; it’s played earnestly on-the-nose, like some monstrous made-for-TV-movie.
As the smiling, smirking boarder of the title, Ruben Ramos has a certain ominous charm. Michelle Hanks, in a ridiculous platinum wig, is a doting, lower-class landlady who wants to be Sloane’s mother and lover. Less direct about what he wants, Randy Rovang is the macho brother who secretly hankers after the young hunk. Joe Ratliff’s Kemp is more an addled old man than a puritanical, pill-popping patriarch. Maybe too much attention was paid to the working-class English accents, which are much stronger than the production. Orton deserves better, and funnier.
Another good idea gone awry is embodied in the two late-night pieces premiering at the Fritz. Both “Sex Lives of Superheroes” and “Notes on the Disappointing Truth of Wonder Woman” promise a lot more than they deliver. Oh, maybe you’ll learn a little about Wonder Woman’s sexual preference and the real relationship between Batman and Robin, but ultimately, both pieces are comic-book in their simplicity though neither colorful nor action-packed in their writing or presentation. A provocative title is always a late-night draw: The Fritz has done extremely well with repeat engagements of “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” But with David Mamet and Eric Bogosian, the writing, not just the title, has bite. Here, we have local writer E. Kim Mitchell and Angeleno Stephen Gregg, both of whom had an idea about Superheroes, fantasy-lives and love, but just didn’t know what to do once the heroes were unmasked.
Of the three actors, Sarah Gunnell fares best, making a nice transition from a Wonder Woman wannabe in the first piece to a heartless, apartment-clearing ex-girlfriend in the second. Any real info. About Sex Lives of Superheroes comes in the form of imagined lectures so dry they could be about soap flakes, and Gene Rathswohl races through these so fast he could be auditioning for a Dow Stereo commercial. Beth Bayless is best in her most sexually compulsive moments; the notion of these two hapless, hopeless obsessives being fixed up by their mutual shrink is kinda clever, but falls flat at the end. There are a few humorous moments in this 40-minute dramatic post-script, and director Michael Hemmingson has spiced it up with some clever stage business, but ultimately, both sex lives and theater have to be more satisfying than this.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.