The madcap farce involving mistaken identity and sexual innuendo has been tried many times. Oscar Wilde was a master of witty farce, and Joe Orton is a devoted acolyte as seen in his over-the-top play, What the Butler Saw, which opened in Los Angeles Sunday night.
Presented at the Mark Taper Forum, What the Butler Saw takes place in a private psychiatric clinic with Dr. Prentice (Charles Shaughnessy) convincing virginal, wanna-be secretary Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton) to take her clothes off as part of her job interview. From that moment on, the play and Orton’s libido-driven characters run through continuous shifts into sexual and psychological exploitation. The play uses gender switching, mistaken identities, lost clothing and other sex farce conventions to poke fun at psychiatry, sexuality, doctors, religion and sanity itself.
The play is highly reminiscent of Oscar Wilde at his best. Orton even sought to try and write a farce that is comparable to The Importance of Being Earnest. While the work is an at-times funny farce, and was ahead of its time when written in 1967, the then-edgy sexual jokes and nudity are not as shocking today. As a result, they come off not as satisfying as Wilde’s frothy farces, but still manage to skewer a lot of subjects. Orton never did get to polish the edges or see his last play performed. It debuted a year and a half after his murder at the hands of his former schoolmate at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and partner of 16 years.
Some bits in What the Butler Saw do seem dated and odd for the period. The innocent Miss Barclay does seem out of place in the swinging London of 1967. Lines like “I couldn’t allow a man to touch me while I was unclothed,” to which the doctor responds, “I shall wear rubber gloves,” seem to fit the madcap romps of an earlier time.
Conversely, the sexual adventures of Dr. and Mrs. Prentice seem more typical and farcical of the time period. The doctor tells his promiscuous wife, “You were born with your legs apart. They’ll send you to the grave in a Y shaped coffin.” Even with the advent of the pill, drug use and the decriminalization of homosexuality, the play did reportedly cause a stir when What the Butler Saw debuted.
Shaughnessy tries to keep a straight face and remain above the fray while pursuing Barclay, much like he did on the TV show The Nanny. Manton was winsome as the secretary arbitrarily classified as insane and Rod McLachlan comical as the police sergeant who is drugged and bundled into a dress. But Frances Barber, who portrayed the shrink’s sexually voracious wife, overacts and shrieks in a grating way that is at times distracting (not as bad as Fran Drescher on The Nanny, but highly reminiscent).
What the Butler Saw is an at times an over-the-top romp that opened in L.A. this week and the farce runs through Dec. 21. While dated and over-acted, the has some great one-liners. A personal favorite was that “You can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world. It’s irrational.”
By Dyanne Weiss
Performance Nov. 23, 2014
Center Theatre Group
Photo by Craig Schwartz; used with permission of Center Theatre Group