By Vicki Weisfeld
In 1967, when playwright Joe Orton was murdered at age 34, the first performance of this once-controversial comedy was still almost two years in the future. Now, a half-century later, the play’s racy elements are less shocking and audiences can perhaps more easily see beyond them to the social satire behind Orton’s gleeful flouting of social convention. This Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production, directed by Paul Mullins, opened September 9 and runs through October 1.
The play begins with a middle-aged psychiatrist named Prentice (played by Peter Simon Hilton) persuading a young secretarial candidate (Allison Layman) to disrobe so he can examine her job “qualifications.” His planned seduction is scuttled when his wife (Vanessa Morosco) appears, followed by a hotel bellman (Robbie Simpson) whom she’s bedded the night before—and he has the pictures to prove it. While these three spar, the audience is hyper-aware of the naked woman behind the examining room curtain.
Confusion and obfuscation intensify with the entrance of Doctor Rance (John Hutton), a health examiner from Her Majesty’s government: “Your immediate superiors in madness,” Rance says. The lightning pace of cross-dressing, mistaken identity, and presumed sexual peccadillos begins in earnest. Most appropriately set in a psychiatric clinic, it is a madhouse, which even a doughty English bobby (Jeffrey M. Bender) cannot tame.
Orton’s picture of the mental health professions is especially scathing, with oblivious Doctor Rance doggedly pursuing his unfounded diagnostic theories. Meanwhile, poor Doctor Prentice’s deceptions land him in deeper and deeper trouble with everyone. At some point, three straight-jackets are on stage, and it’s a toss-up which characters are most in need of restraint.
All the elements of farce are at full play—the absurd situations, the baffled characters, the fast pace—and director Mullins has prepared the actors well. Each of them has numerous opportunities to shine, and if act two isn’t quite up to the hilarity of act one, that is more a minor flaw with the play itself (which Orton never saw performed or had a chance to revise) than this entertaining production.
Orton’s biographers see parallels between the relationship between Dr. and Mrs. Prentice and the playwright and his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, suggesting that both couples denied their role in their partners’ difficulties. Although What the Butler Saw ends on an upbeat note, a month after its completion, Orton died at Halliwell’s hand and the older man committed suicide.
Production credits to Brittany Vasta (set design—four doors!); Tony Galaska (lighting design); Kristin Isola (costume design); Steven L. Beckel (sound design); and Alison Cote (production stage manager).
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30! However, the theater warns that this play is not suitable for young audiences, as it includes moments of partial nudity, as well as shots fired from a blank gun.