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Adapted from Feodor Dostoevski’s novel by Roland Reed and Andrei Malaev-Babel

Directed by Andrei Malaev-Babel

and Paata Tsikurishvili

At Church Street Theatre to Dec. 19

Entertaining Mr. Sloane

By Joe Orton

Directed by Tom Mallan

At Clark Street Playhouse to Dec. 12

Anyone who witnessed Stanislavsky Theater Studio’s arrestingly stylized Pushkin-fest, The Little Tragedies, last December will know to watch closely when the lights come up on its new stage adaptation of The Idiot. Visual flair is the troupe’s long suit, and it’s exhibited this time pretty much from the evening’s first image—twin locomotive headlights appearing dimly through a crinoline fog at stage center.

The train approaches, then dissolves in a quasi-cinematic lighting shift, to be replaced by a Pullman car interior, where amiably jostling passengers introduce each other and lay out exposition. Later, the train interior will be supplanted by ballrooms, rows of streetlights, horse-drawn carriages, and flickering flames, all created primarily through pantomime and choreography.

Angled shafts of light, rippling fabrics, and a subdued palette also contribute to the STS aesthetic, creating a stripped-down stage world in which a patron’s imagination is encouraged to run riot. I remember the Pushkin plays primarily in blacks and deep grays; this new evening, which deals with far darker subject matter, is created principally in shades of white—gauze that cascades over wires, linens that blind.

The Idiot (adapted from the Dostoevski novel for STS by Roland Reed and director Andrei Malaev-Babel) is the story of Prince Myshkin, a sweet man who is first glimpsed while traveling to Petersburg by train. He has just emerged from a mental institution that was treating him for epilepsy, and is, you sense quickly, too saintly and innocent to defend himself in the real world. Sure enough, upon arriving in Petersburg, Myshkin gets caught up in a love triangle involving a general’s pretty daughter and a businessman’s notorious mistress, both of whom vie for his attention, then behave in mercurial ways when he gives it to them. Since both are much desired by other men, scandal, violence, and, eventually, murder ensue.

Accomplished mime Paata Tsikurishvili plays Myshkin with the wide-open naivete of a child. His ballerina wife, Irina Tsikurishvili, plays the calculating mistress. Both move wittily, with a delicate grace that’s a real joy to watch. Catherine Gasta, who plays the general’s daughter, isn’t quite in their league but is actress enough to acquit herself nicely; the supporting cast ranges from adequate to something more than that.

It’s hard to say whether the STS method, which relies more heavily on mime and dance than it does on conventional acting, is better suited to the short-form storytelling of the Pushkin playlets, or if it was just used more carefully in that earlier evening. I recall being startled by how efficiently the troupe’s visual devices advanced the story lines last year. With a few notable exceptions—among them, an epileptic seizure pictured as a gauzily constricting spider’s web—the devices seem mostly decorative in The Idiot. There’s lots of stationary walking through moving backgrounds, for instance—a trick that’s fun to watch at first, but has pretty much lost its novelty value by the third promenade.

Still, Konstantin Tikhonov’s lighting (he also designed the stripped-to-essentials costumes and abstract set) is a show in itself, and the theatricality on display is undeniable. Those who value variety in their theatrical diet will find plenty to like.

At the time of Joe Orton’s murder in 1967, only one of his plays, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, had opened in the United States. Alas, the production received reviews so lethal that it shuttered almost immediately. Broadway’s critics found the play’s skewering of both family and values (the two terms hadn’t been irrevocably linked back then) pretentious, its comedy all but nonexistent. Those same scribes were kinder to Loot a few years later—but by then, of course, bad-boy Orton was dead, and his ideas didn’t feel quite so threatening.

They seem even less disquieting today, at least at Clark Street Playhouse, where Washington Shakespeare Company is mounting a decently acted but unduly sober Sloane revival that’s likely to leave most patrons mystified as to what all the fuss was about.

Orton’s story concerns a pathetically needy, terminally stupid woman named Kath (Rosemary Regan), who invites the 20-something Mr. Sloane (Jeffrey Johnson) to stay as a roomer with her and her father, Kemp (Richard Mancini). She’s clearly infatuated with the young man, as is her gay brother, Ed (Christopher Henley), who stops by the house just as Sloane is getting settled in. Ed is a bit quicker on the uptake than his sister, and approximately as needy, though he hides that fact behind his condescending manner. He offers Sloane a job as his chauffeur, suggesting skintight leather pants and a white T-shirt as an appropriate uniform.

For the first half of the play, Sloane uses himself as bait and is pretty firmly in charge. Emotionally and sexually colorless and utterly without scruples, he blithely becomes whatever people want of him. For Kath, he’s both son and lover; for Ed, he’s an attractive accessory. His only problem is with Kemp, who neither wants nor needs anything from him—and is consequently impossible to manipulate. When Sloane tries to substitute physical control for the mind games he’s been playing, a miscalculation undoes him. By play’s end, the balance has shifted, and he’s pretty much at the mercy of Ed and Kath.

In outline, this plot sounds like Pinter, and at Clark Street Playhouse, it plays like him, too. A bit too much so, in that the laughs are sparse and the atmospherics thick; when with Orton, you’re better off when it’s the other way ’round. Tom Mallan’s staging is brisk and sells the obvious verbal jokes with a certain flair, but it isn’t terribly funny or troubling between the lines. Partly, the problem is Johnson’s blandly pleasant Sloane, who is neither as odd nor as menacing as the character needs to be for the play to have any oomph. You want this guy to be enigmatic, but Johnson makes him so blank a slate that even when he turns briefly homicidal, it’s hard to get a handle on him.

The others make stronger impressions. Henley has fun turning Ed into John Cleese, and Mancini is blustery and affecting as the distant, uncommunicative dad who hasn’t spoken to his son in decades. Regan’s Kath is appropriately pathetic, though she hasn’t found ways to make her pathos noticeably amusing. The panelled walls with which Giorgos Tsappas’ setting surrounds them are attractive and solid but almost entirely unevocative—something that could be said with equal accuracy about the production itself. CP