Theatre Mirror Reviews - "What The Butler Saw"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Beverly Creasey

Boffo "Butler"
At Huntington

Reviewed by Beverly Creasey

Joe Orton despised everything connected with the establishment: government, doctors, police, even the established theater…and with good reason. Orton ran afoul of all of them at one time or another in his short career. (He was murdered at the age of thirty- four just before WHAT THE BUTLER SAW opened.) Up in all its glory at the Huntington, this turned out to be his last swipe at traditional British values. Orton’s sardonic farces all elicit riotous laughter at the expense of the status quo. As Kingsley Amis quips “The British used to lead the world in empire and culture. Now the only thing it leads in is decline.”

Orton loved to shine a bright light on the hypocrisy and decline of the empire. The laser must have seared its target in l967 and although BUTLER is less shocking now, Orton’s arrows still hit their mark. As the government psychiatrist protests, rubbing his hands together with glee, “The bounds of decency have been transgressed.” It doesn’t hurt to have Paxton Whitehead delivering Orton’s delicious dialogue, either.

When Paxton, as the shrink, thinks he’s brilliantly interpreted everyone’s subconscious (and you know he’s so wrong), he flies into a hysterical state of self-righteous rapture. The doctor’s joy at the discovery of a “fetishist overlap” of “both bi-sexuality and transvestism” is pure Orton magic. His stuffy, upper class fools practically salivate over the notion of “Greco-Roman” goings-on.

The doctor, having arrived at a psychiatric clinic for a government revue, finds chaos (not to mention nudity, mistaken identities and an untimely visit from a jealous wife) which he drolly explains to a colleage: “Just when one least expects it, the unexpected always happens.” With each unexpected turn, Orton rachets up the outrageous…and we reap the benefits.

Director Darko Tresnjak knows comic timing like the back of his hand, so errant bras and panties are snatched from view just in a nano-second of time. Susan O’Connor blithely cooperates, also just in the nick of time, to hide behind a hospital curtain (which might have been designed by Mary Quant. David P. Gordon’s fabulously “mod” set sports the garish gleam of ‘60s chic---as do Linda Cho’s “Barnaby Street” costumes).

Tim Donoghue is the randy doctor who convinces O’Connor to undress at her job interview. Amy Van Nostrand is his suspicious wife and Roderick Hill is the bellhop who’s been bed-hopping and scandalizing young schoolgirls. John Seidman is the copper who’s trying to pinch Hill and you know his clothes are going to come off, too (almost all done tastefully, off stage or behind curtains or less tastefully, but more hilariously, behind an accessory).

Grab your coat and accessories and head for the Huntington for a wild, uproarious evening where comeuppance is the rule of law and snooty doctors are brought down a peg. If only Orton knew what delight his plays bring, almost thirty years later.

"What The Butler Saw" (4 - 28 March)
264 Huntington Ave., BOSTON 02115
Box Office: 1(617) 266-0800

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide