Theatre Mirror Reviews - "What The Butler Saw"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Susan Daniels
(This review originally appeared in the3/25 issue of the South End News.)

"What The Butler Saw"

Reviewed by by Susan Daniels

There is no butler in “What the Butler Saw,” but there is ribald humor, physical comedy, preposterous plot developments, play on words, double entendres, zany characters, outlandish decor, cross dressing siblings, compromising positions, a buck naked butt, a proliferation of straight jackets, an oversized (plastic) phallus, and a piercing wit that sears the British psychiatric profession, along with several other areas of the establishment, in Joe Orton’s very funny comedy, playing at the Huntington Theatre through April 4.

Orton, a British playwright whose rising career was cut short at age 34 when he was bludgeoned to death while sleeping by his crazed lover, loved to taunt the establishment with his raunchy ideas and eloquent dialogue. In “Butler,” probably his best play of the few he left behind, the humor contains a certain cadence that effectively works with the one-liners spewing from the mouths of the British authorities he gleefully cuts down to size.

Under the nimble direction of Darko Tresnjak, who has gathered a talented creative team that has reconstructed the 1960s mod culture to zany perfection, the fleet-footed, dash-through-doors, drop-your-pants -- and that happens several times -- escapades parade a cast of loony characters throughout the laugh-out-loud, two hour farce.

The plot revolves around Dr. Prentice (Tim Donoghue), a middle-aged psychiatrist, whose attempted extramarital seductions with a chirpy secretarial applicant (Susan O’Connor) are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his wife (Amy Van Nostrand), who has just returned from a sexual misadventure of her own. Add to the mix an overly enthusiastic hospital inspector (Paxton Whitehead), a conniving, hunky page boy (Roderick Hill), and a dim-witted policeman (John Seidman), who spins his wheels in an attempt to make sense of the confusion and lunacy rampaging across the stage.

Does it make sense? Well, no, but it all comes together during the closing moments when the characters discover their true identities as well as Winston Churchill’s “parts” in one of the funniest sight gags this side of farce.

And with any decent farce, it’s all in the timing. Not only does the crack ‘n crazy ensemble hit all the marks, but the message is as timely now as when the play debuted in 1969 in New York. The underpinnings of Orton’s wit scorch the government, one that has the hubris to masquerade as both the caretaker and parent to its constituents. Just connect the dots between the British Parliament of the 60s with the current Bush administration.

Ah yes, it’s all in the timing.

(This review originally appeared in the3/25 issue of the South End News.)

“What the Butler Saw,” through April 4.
Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston. Tickets $14
to $64; For tickets, call box office at 617-266-0800, TicketMaster at
617-931-ARTS, or visit

"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