What was scandalous in the 60s is slightly less scandalous now. Casual attitudes toward homosexuality, infidelity, corrupt politicians and medical professionals, all presented in the guise of a light-hearted, door-slamming farce, were concepts that were shocking to audiences then. Now they seem almost quaint.
Joe Orton wrote What the Butler Saw, his final play, just before his murder in 1967 and it wasn’t first produced until two years after he died. He had already cleared the way for the ribald naughtiness in it with his previous plays, Entertaining Mr. Sloan and Loot, but he pushed the boundaries even further here. The play is an odd combination of black comedy and farce, and, although it isn’t as shocking now, what it lampoons is still mostly on target: loose sexual mores under the guise of upright stodginess; bureaucrats exercising their petty powers in outrageous ways without any thought to logic or decency; medical and psychiatric professional bending what they know to be true into something quite unrecognizable for their own ends; in short, hypocrisy in as many of its forms as Mr. Orton could cram in to the script.
The play begins when Geraldine Barclay (the charming Amanda Troop) shows up for an interview to be Dr. Prentice’s (John Walcutt) secretary. He manipulates the young innocent to undress, under the pretext of conducting an examination, but while she is in her under-things but hidden behind a curtain, his wife (played by Melinda Parrett) shows up having lost her clothing to a young, would be rapist bell-hop the night before while at a hotel attending a conference of an organization of lesbians. Meanwhile, Dr. Rance (Geoffrey Wade), who works for a government agency in charge of madness, shows up for an evaluation of Dr. Prentice’s psychiatric practice. He wants to write a book about modern mental illness that will propel him to fame and fortune and is looking for subjects for it under any rock, bed sheet or scandal he can find.
Things get decidedly out of hand when Mrs. Prentice dons Ms. Barclay’s dress, thinking it her own, then Ms. Barclay is mistaken for a patient of the clinic. With the addition of Nicholas Beckett (Ciaran Joyce), the would be rapist, who is also blackmailing Ms. Barclay in order to get a job with her husband as his typist, and Sergeant Match (Jerry Della Salla), an earnest and seemingly incorruptible police officer who is trying to figure out if any crime has been committed, and if it has, what it is and who did it (are you keeping up?), the dark romp becomes a whirlwind of cross-dressing, mistaken identity, nudity, “just-in-the-nick-of-time” entrances and exits, cover-up and deception. Mr. Orton supposedly wanted to write a play that was better than The Importance of Being Earnest. He didn’t quite reach that goal, but what he did produce can be exhaustingly funny.
The production of What the Butler Saw now playing at the Odyssey Theatre, unfortunately, is mostly uninspired and doesn’t really take off until the second act, when the shear force of Mr. Orton’s script takes over. In a farce such as this, good timing is crucial and, for the most part, missing from this production. It is as if it hadn’t quite gelled. There are a couple of wonderful performances. Mr. Joyce as the bell-hop is delightful and brings the right amount of innocence (the co-existence of innocence and dark acts is a staple of Mr. Orton’s work), guile and willingness to go along to get along to the role. Ms. Parrett is also quite funny as the doctor’s wife. Mr. Walcutt, as the doctor, seemed to be a bit lost. His bluster was forced and his desperation as things got more and more out of hand seemed an after thought in the performance rather than building from the madness he put in motion. Mr. Wade, as the government doctor, had some very funny moments. Mr. Salla as the police sergeant seems to be winking at us a little too much about the earnestness of his character rather then being earnest himself.
In the press packet for the production, there is an interview with the director, Alan Patrick Kenny, in which he said he picked this play because it would be the hardest thing he had ever directed. As much as I admire an artist’s attempt to stretch his abilities, it seems he isn’t quite yet ready for this task.
The costumes, by Mylette Nora, were good. The best that can be said of the set by Ellen Lenbergs was that it was functional.