By Karen Isaacs
Joe Orton died too young. The iconoclastic British playwright was killed by his lover in 1964 when he was just 34 and had written only a handful of plays. As Mark Lamos, artistic director of Westport Country Playhouse wrote in his program notes – he might have given theater goers a “legacy of ground-breaking comedic works that would have entertained generations of theatergoers.”
Yet we are still blessed with several masterpieces – Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot and the play currently at Westport through Sept. 10 – What the Butler Saw.
It is a farce – but a farce probably unlike any you have ever seen before, unless you saw the terrific Westport production of Loot a few years ago.
Orton came out of the “angry young man” school of British playwrights and authors in the 1950s and ’60. While many of the playwrights wrote “kitchen sink” dramas that featured working class characters and were critical of the British class system, its post-Empire society, and its values and hypocrisy Orton turned to comedy.
He incorporated his criticisms of British values, traditions and society into plays that used the farce format – improbabilities, multiple doors, confused identities and double entendres.
What the Butler Saw is just such a play. The title draws on the titles of more traditional British farces because there is NO butler to see anything in this play.
It is set in the dispensary of a psychiatrist, Dr. Prentice who is interviewing a young woman, Geraldine Barclay, for a secretarial position. Yet the questions he asks seem inappropriate for the position; the young woman has an interesting history – her father abandoned her mother after a night of sex in a hotel linen closet. The woman who raised her has recently died due to a very unconventional accident.
Soon the mayhem commences. He convinces Geraldine to remove her clothes and lie down, but just as he is about to “examine” her, his wife makes an unanticipated entry. He barely gets rid of her when Dr. Rance barges in; he is a psychiatrist from a government authority there to inspect the clinic.
But Dr. Rance seems more than a little unconventional. He quickly decides that Geraldine is insane and must be hospitalized. When the stage is empty we again meet Mrs. Prentice and the hotel bellboy, Nicholas Beckett. It seems that they have had a recent rambunctious encounter in the hotel’s line closet and he has the photos to prove it. He wants money.
That is the set up for the mayhem that follows. It is almost indescribably but let’s say that soon Dr. Prentice is accused of being insane, Geraldine keeps trying to get away, various people switch clothes and personas and Sergeant Match arrives to investigate the disappearance of Geraldine.
The conclusion draws references to both Oscar Wilde and Gilbert & Sullivan.
A show like this requires a cast with spectacular timing as well as an ability to make the characters seem like real people. It also requires a director who keeps the whole thing moving and can develop both the laughs and the feelings in it.
Luckily Westport has both. Director John Tillinger has years of experience directing British works that require exquisite timing – at Westport and elsewhere he is considered the go-to director throughout the country for works by Orton and Alan Ayckbourn His credits go on and on as do his list of awards and award nominations.
The cast is more than up to the demands of the play and the director. Again, many are veterans of this style of theater. Even those who don’t have the experience, Chris Ghaffai as Nicholas (he most recently was Romeo at Hartford Stage), perform like veterans.
Through her posture and voice, Sarah Manton immediately gives us a complete character as Geraldine and she continues to build on that first impression. Robert Stanton as Dr. Prentice does a good job as a man who is not only losing control of the situation – and doesn’t really understand why – and someone trying to figure out a solution.
Chris Ghaffari is excellent as the blackmailing bellboy but Tillinger has incorporated a brief nude scene that seems unnecessary.
The other cast members – Patricia Kalember as Mrs. Prentice and Julian Gamble as Sergeant Match are equal to the others.
But if there is a standout, it has to be Paxton Whitehead, who has almost made a career out of playing somewhat dotty, bewildered Englishman. Here as Dr. Rance he is always confident no matter how misguided he is, always convinced of his infallibility and unflappable as everything goes crazy about him.
Praises must be given to the scenic design by James Noon – that gives an elegant touch to the clinic and provides the necessary multiple doors, the costume design by Laurie Churba, and the dialect coach Elizabeth Smith. Singling these three members of the production team, does not imply that the others – lighting design by John McKernon, sound design by Scott Killian or the movement/firearms choreographer Robert Westley did not also do great work.
What the Butler Saw provides a lot of laughs and a ridiculous situation; it is good fun.
It is at Westport Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport through Sept. 10. For tickets visit westportplayhouse.org.