If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
"What the Butler Saw" at Westport Playhouse
The anarchic spirit of playwright Joe Orton is alive and well at the Westport Playhouse where the late writer's outrageous farce, "What the Butler Saw," is currently in residence. Although not completely up to snuff on opening night, there is enough promise in this edgy revival from the acclaimed British author of modern classics like "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" and "Loot," to warrant a visit.
Set in the late 1960s in a private clinic, the daffy plot of "Butler" spins immediately into motion when the respectable-appearing Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton), a psychiatrist, interviews a potential secretary (Sarah Manton) by suggesting a complete physical exam (sans clothing, naturally). It isn't long before the good doctor's wife (a fearless Patricia Kalember) checks in with a tale of being nearly ravished and now blackmailed by a hotel employee who, she insists, her husband must now hire. Hiding his nearly naked secretary behind a curtain, Prentice is then visited by Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead) who has arrived on a mission from the government to thoroughly inspect the facility. It all builds to an hilarious climax that borrows from and then subverts the convoluted resolution of "The Importance of Being Earnest" (Orton was often compared to Oscar Wilde). With suggestions of infidelity, transvestitism, rape, incest, nymphomania and a flagrant disregard for any rules of decorum, Joe Orton's manic farce broke several taboos and scandalized London audiences when it opened there in 1968. Although a tad dated now, the comedy still has the ability to shock with its pitch-black humor and reckless embrace of the politically incorrect.
On opening night, the performances were still taking shape as though lacking enough rehearsal time. The first act, in particular, was sluggishly paced with awkward comic timing. In the faster and funnier second act, the players seemed more assured and comfortable which is fortunate since many of them were in various stages of undress by that point. The incomparable Mr. Whitehead, who has appeared in several Alan Ayckbourn comedies at the Playhouse, takes charge as the evening's most valuable player. A master of the slow burn and raised eyebrow with timing that wrings every last laugh out of a joke, Whitehead has been around long enough now to lead seminars on the art of playing comedy. Ms. Kalember, looking in amazing shape, plays the lusty, faithless wife to perfection and also stuns in her dominatrix drag. Robert Stanton isn't always sure-footed as the appallingly unprofessional doctor, but Manton is a delight of mixed emotions as his put-upon secretary. Both Chris Ghaffari, as the would-be blackmailer and Julian Gamble, playing a bumbling police sergeant, haven't quite submitted to Orton's bent sensibility yet, but did have their moments especially while in and out of women's clothing.
With a well-earned reputation as an expert on the works of Joe Orton, director John Tillinger gets most aspects right in this production which will no doubt improve as the run continues. Scenic Designer James Noone's expansive clinic is all spotless surfaces and Laurie Churba's 1960s fashions fit the bill exactly. Orton is clearly still an acquired taste as several in the Westport audience elected not to return after intermission. I, however, found the play to be a nostalgic and naughty visit with a remarkable playwright gone far too soon.
“What the Butlers Saw” continues at the Westport Playhouse through September 11. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at: 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.