Thursday, May 23, 2024

Seduction and intrigue abound in Joe Orton’s dark comedy “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” starring Harvard’s Jack Cutmore-Scott and Sandra Shipley. (Photo: Kippy Goldfarb/Carolle Photography)

Publick Theatre Boston’s latest production, “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” redefines the phrase “entertaining your guests.” Mr. Sloane is unknowingly, but not completely innocently, a newcomer to a family with a history of helping one another out to suit their own desires.

This wicked play seems to have found the perfect Mr. Sloane — Jack Cutmore-Scott, a senior at Harvard who is making his U.S. professional debut as the young schemer, the character that offers a view into the mindset of the three family members.

Early in the play, Mr. Sloane finds himself with his pants off, in what would seem like an uncomfortable situation. But even in the intimate theater, with the audience just feet from the stage, Cutmore-Scott was unfazed. “I’ve probably done worse things than that,” he said after the performance.

Jack Cutmore-Scott, a senior at Harvard, is making his U.S. professional debut in “Entertaining Mr. Sloane.”

“Jack is absolutely amazing,” said actress Sandra Shipley. “What astounds me is his calmness on stage. It is very reassuring to everyone around him.”

British playwright Joe Orton wrote and debuted this two-act dark comedy — set in 1960s England — in London in 1964; director Eric C. Engel’s version, which closes this weekend at the Boston Center for the Arts, benefits from its all-British cast. A wistful humor seems ingrained in them as a people, as well as a gift for unflappability in awkward situations.

For exactly those reasons, the play was one Engel enjoyed and has always wanted to direct. “I wanted to explore the timeliness of loneliness in the context of a fun piece of theater,” he said. “It’s one of those plays that is too funny to be sad, and too sad to be funny. And if it works, it’s all of these.”

Mr. Sloane, a 20-something English lad with a checkered past, rents a room from an aging landlady whose father also lives in the house. Kath, his landlady, and Ed, her brother, flirt with Mr. Sloane. Each of the three characters subtly and often overtly positions themselves to use each other and the living situation to get what they desperately want.

Shipley, a seasoned actress, adds a skillfully eccentric and dysfunctional dimension to Kath, who seems to operate in a deluded reality. Kath often alludes to a history of past liaisons with boarders. “My look is quite different when I’m in private,” Kath, wearing a black negligee, says to Mr. Sloane when she invites him into her dimly lit living room. She wants company while she knits, she says.

(Unlike Mr. Sloane and Cutmore-Scott, “Kath isn’t meant to be calm and in control. I have that in my favor,” Shipley said, referring to how she uses opening night jitters to her advantage.)

Ed, Kath’s brother, has an open hostility toward women. “Avoid the birds in the future,” he says, offering Mr. Sloane advice.

Nigel Gore is cast in the role of Ed. “I wanted a good actor who could get into the layers of Ed’s repressed sexuality without making him a buffoon,” Engel said, “but who also had enough craft to play the comic adjustments of the script.”

The cast is rounded out with Kemp, or “Dada” to Ed and Kath. Dada, played by Dafydd Rees, is a cantankerous old man who doesn’t trust Mr. Sloane.

The Boston Center for the Arts, which seats 140, has a partial-thrust stage, a layout that surrounds the actors by the audience on three sides. The small space and proximity of the audience add an intensity to the play, which is already packed with emotional and physical altercations between the characters. “It has to look real,” said Shipley, crediting stage choreographer Angie Jepson for her work. “[At times] it looks sickeningly real.”

“Entertaining Mr. Sloane” gives the audience a two-hour voyeuristic view into what goes on behind the walled privacy of one English living room. The story and characters will intrigue the audience.

“[The play] really taps into our desperate anxieties while entertaining us,” Engel said.

“Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” plays Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. at the Boston Center for the Arts, 39 Tremont St. in Boston’s South End. For information, call (617) 454-1444 or e-mail by clicking here. Tickets are $33 to $37.50.