"What the Butler Saw" -- Westport Country Playhouse

--Irene Backalenick

Hoorah to the Westport Country Playhouse and Artistic Director Mark Lamos, for winding up their summer season with a Joe Orton comedy! While “What the Butler Saw” is not the best of Orton (nor is this production without its flaws), it has the unmistakable Orton touch. Comedy, satire and farce play against each other in a zany mix. In his distinctive style, this British playwright satirizes his country’s values, culture, society, psychiatry, marriage, sex, and Winston Churchill. No one is safe.

“What the Butler Saw” opens with a doctor (who runs an exclusive psychiatric clinic) interviewing a young girl as potential secretary. Actually, it is a seduction scene, and he soon has her naked on an examination table. Like any good farce, the scene gets increasingly wild, with numerous misunderstandings, stripping, disguises, and slamming of doors. But Orton uses this time-honored genre, usually given over to light-hearted love affairs, to take a hard look at his own society.

No wonder Orton wraps his serious concerns within this package. His own tragic-comic life was more powerful than fiction. As a young gay boy from the streets, he met an older, more educated man, who became his mentor. They were both would-be playwrights, but the far more talented Orton soon outstripped his lover. At that point, just as Orton’s own career was exploding, he was killed by his lover (out of jealousy). Orton was in his early ‘30s. Who knows what he would have accomplished, given more time!

In this production, directed by John Tillinger (who has received praise for earlier offerings of the play), the six characters all managed to get dressed, stripped and undressed with considerable aplomb. On the whole, the show manages a farcical tempo, though it slows down when the psychiatrist’s wife (played by Patricia Kalember) is obliged to giving whining speeches. The other problem is the British accent, often  unintelligible, as offered by Robert Stanton in a lead role as the resident psychiatrist. As a viewer, one longs for a script in hand to follow the plot. Stanton, except for the accent, gives a credible performance, but Paxton Whitehead, the visiting doctor, is marvelous, capturing the Orton essence with every British phrase clearly articulated and in place. Others in the cast (Julian Gamble, Chris Ghaffari, and Sarah Manton) handle their confusions, anxieties, stripping, and accents smoothly.

On the whole, praise goes to the Playhouse for bringing Orton to these shores, though one hopes in future for other Orton plays with less elusive British accents.

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