Review of What the Butler Saw, Westport Country Playhouse
Revivals of ground-breaking work can be tricky business. Once the initial shock is gone, what does the work have to offer? Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw is a ribald, witty, absurd farce and though, for our times, it’s hardly as daring as in 1969, when it debuted, it still puts its cast through its paces. Directed by John Tillinger with a feel for the play’s strengths, the comedy treats marriage, psychiatry, health care professionals, hotel service people, the police force, gender roles, sexual tastes and Winston Churchill to fast-paced, irreverent fun.
The mention of Churchill should tip you off to one main characteristic of Orton’s comedy. It’s British, in the way that Monty Python is British, or the Carry On series is. And that means its form of verbal humor can be a stretch for American ears. It’s not just the accents, it’s the entire grasp of how the language of polite society works. Orton’s characters are articulate to a fault. But most of what they say is potty, loony, off-its-chum. It’s not just the idiom either. The humor, to work, requires an earnest and serious manner among the players. For the most part, the cast is equal to the challenge, but even so. One can only imagine how much better this would play in Britain.
Thankfully, the Westport production benefits from Paxton Whitehead, who specializes in playing the kind of fatuous ass who is not only a send-up of professionalism, psychiatric jargon, get-ahead ethics, and lack of imagination, but of a distinctly British sense of how the establishment works. Indeed, Orton’s zinginess comes from the fact that he’s trying to skewer established norms—particularly about sexuality—that keep the British unflappable, and Whitehead’s Dr. Rance is a walking textbook of self-satisfied credulity.
His foil is Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton), the ne’er-do-well who gets the shenanigans off and running by piling silly pretense upon ludicrous lie. He begins by attempting to seduce, in smarmy predatory professional manner (in the days before “sexual harassment” had a name), a dim, accommodating would-be Gal Friday Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton, wonderfully manic). Stanton’s Prentice is not a villain so much as an erring human who can’t admit mistakes, so he becomes a kind of Jerry Lewis of escalating miscalculations. He’s married to a philandering female (Patricia Kalember, who enacts the estranged, liberated wife with brittle cool) and is trying to maintain his professional and sexual status in a world that delights in how easily anyone can lose all dignity. Not least Sergeant Match, a forthright constable (Julian Gamble) who ends up in his underwear and later a dress and wig, and Nicholas Beckett (Chris Ghaffari), a game bell-hop who has to go about in drag and, eventually, the altogether.
In a sense, the play is much ado about nothing, with a vengeance. The notion that “deviant” behavior can be analyzed and “helped” is one of Orton’s targets, but that ship has sailed, more or less. The play works because it does what farce is supposed to do: undermine the layers of pretense that people cling to as a means of denying what is happening in front of them. Orton has a knack for the tableau of someone catching someone else in a compromising moment. The point of such take-offs and put-ons is that we’re all of us compromised by our appetites, desires, and petty indulgences. Along the way there is sport with the kind of well-made play that has to tie up all loose ends, with a fond nod to Oscar Wilde’s Earnest.
The detailed set (James Noone) and suitable costumes (Laurie Churba) help create the kind of rational world that will become topsy-turvy as the play goes on, including the various fates of a demure flowered dress and a racier leopard print. There are four doorways and they will all be used with expert timing, as well as a host of apropos props. The challenge here is in keeping up with the verbal and the physical comedy and, while it never achieves complete hysterics, Tillinger’s production at Westport does keep it all bouncing merrily.
What the Butler Saw
By Joe Orton
Directed by John Tillinger
Scenic Design: James Noone; Costume Design: Laurie Churba; Lighting Design: John McKernon; Sound Design: Scott Killian; Dialect Consultant: Elizabeth Smith; Movement and Firearms Choreographer: Robert Westley; Props Master: Karin White; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith
Cast: Julian Gamble, Chris Ghaffari, Patricia Kalember, Sarah Manton, Robert Stanton, Paxton Whitehead
Westport Country Playhouse
August 23-September 10, 2016