Theatre Mirror Reviews - "What the Butler Saw"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


by Joe Orton
directed by Darko Tresnjak

Dr. Prentice … Tim Donoghue
Geraldine Barclay … Susan O’Connor
Mrs. Prentice … Amy Van Nostrand
Nicholas Beckett … Roderick Hill
Dr. Rance … Paxton Whitehead
Sergeant Match … John Seidman

Joe Orton’s WHAT THE BUTLER SAW was completed shortly before he was bludgeoned to death at age 34 by his mentor and companion Kenneth Halliwell who, in turn, committed suicide. Mr. Orton’s black-humored canon includes three full-length plays, four television one-acters, a novel, an unfilmed script for the Beatles and his (in)famous diaries --- he was blazingly original in his wit and outrage, smashing sacred institutions with the exaggerated politeness of a Teddy Boy on a lark (though Mr. Halliwell’s academic influence must be given its due); Mr. Orton was the dark side of swinging London in the 60s --- a gay Angry Young Man --- and his influence is felt in such films as A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (long banned in England) and THE RULING CLASS, not to mention the merry madness of the Monty Python troupe, FAWLTY TOWERS, and French & Saunders, together and solo (MURDER MOST HORRID; ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS). Mr. Orton shocked and delighted London theatergoers in his lifetime but only shocked and failed on Broadway; his reputation has grown, his stature established, since his death --- rather than Mr. Orton adapting to the times, the times have adapted to him.

Mr. Orton insisted that his plays be directed and performed as realistically as possible; his shocks came from the most outrageous things being said and done with po-faced solemnity (the British stiff upper lip being turned inside out): in ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE, the homosexual Ed must be played “as if he was the most ordinary man in the world, and not the moment you wanted sex with boys you had to put on earrings and scent” (a revolutionary concept in the days of limp-wrist characterizations); in LOOT, the play’s coffin is merely a box with a woman’s corpse being tossed and replaced with stolen bank money --- by her own son and his boyfriend (during the original London run of LOOT, Mr. Orton passed his late mother’s dentures among cast members to show how serious he was as an anarchist). His unpolished masterpiece WHAT THE BUTLER SAW (which takes its title from a popular British peepshow) has an intricate Restoration plot and is composed almost entirely of epigrams: Dr. Prentice, head of a psychiatric clinic, attempts to seduce Geraldine Barclay, a young woman being interviewed for the post of secretary, but his nymphomaniac wife unexpectedly returns; Dr. Prentice's attempts to hide the naked Geraldine sets off colossal misunderstandings on the part of Mrs. Prentice and the visiting Dr. Rance, one of his “immediate superiors in madness”; Nicholas Beckett, a blackmailing bellboy, and Sergeant Match, a policeman looking for missing parts of a Churchill statue, get caught up in the chaos; gender confusion runs rampant and Dr. Rance, sifting the mistaken evidence, labels Dr. Prentice “a transvestite, fetishist, bi-sexual murderer” --- the farce ends in a send-up of age-old reconciliations and, with a nod to the classics, throws in a deus ex machine (the play’s original ending). It is all wild and brilliant and hilarious --- and still dangerous. The Huntington production is homogenized --- this is the Old Girl, after all, where a glimpse of stocking is still looked on as something shocking --- the audience laughs safely, cozily; nothing is smashed, here (“One shouldn’t pander to audiences,” advises Mr. Orton, again); even its gunplay and a bit of bloodbath fails to disturb. The evening’s one jolt is ridiculously calculated: the bellboy exits, wearing only bikini briefs; he next streaks across the stage completely starkers, a policeman’s helmet shielding his naughty bits; when next he appears, he is in his briefs again. Then there is the matter of cross-dressing: Mrs. Rance’s stolen dress has clearly been tailored to fit the taller bellboy to a “T” and his own uniform would have swamped the petite Geraldine; she apparently dons a smaller uniform behind the curtains.

Under Darko Tresnjak’s whip-crack direction, six drawing room clowns nimbly jump through Mr. Orton’s hoops; judging by a smattering of applause on his first entrance, Paxton Whitehead is the star of the production and contributes another of his politely blunt characterizations though his Dr. Rance is no looney but, rather, one of those British Eccentrics so dear to PBS hearts. Susan O’Connor is most at ease with Mr. Tresnjak’s cartoon approach, her Geraldine resembling a newly-hatched sparrow with blackened eyes. On the other hand, Tim Donoghue and Amy Van Nostrand overheat and end up flooring their Prentices: lacking volume, Ms. Van Nostrand shreds her voice while Mr. Donoghue’s complexion registers as bright pink as if he is being strangled. Roderick Hill has the correct cool, aloof tone required for Orton youths; John Seidman’s police sergeant has wandered in from Gilbert & Sullivan and is spoiled by his British-flag underwear and his going swishy when drugged and dragged.

David P. Gordon’s set is clever and clinical though it does scream “farce” from the moment you enter the auditorium; Mr. Gordon fills the B. U. barn but, as with the Stoneham’s WAIT UNTIL DARK, the characters must race from heeeeeeere to therrrrrrrre; a scaling down of the proscenium would have helped slice off those extra seconds. Still, it is good to hear Joe Orton’s words bombarding us again and the evening, despite these reservations, is recommended fun. Mr. Orton, however, might have shrugged --- not dangerous, enough --- and cruised the men in the lavatory, afterwards. He was like that.

"What the Butler Saw" (5 March-4 April)
264 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 266-0800

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