DatesJuly 5 thru August 5
Spoiler alert: There’s no butler in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw. There is, however, a Dr. Prentice, a psychiatrist whose carnal urges get him into the occasional spot of bother. There’s his wife, Mrs. Prentice, who has her own urges—none of them directed at her husband. There’s a Geraldine Barclay, a young woman interviewing for the position of Dr. Prentice’s secretary, who is unwittingly the victim of the good doctor’s sexual advances. There is a young, handsome hotel page named Nick, intent on blackmailing Mrs. Prentice into convincing her husband to give him the secretarial job instead.
And that’s mostly where we begin. To describe much more in the way of plot might give too much away, as playwright Joe Orton’s now-classic sex farce hinges on an element of stunned surprised. Orton, a gay Englishman, died before he could see it performed, and it was written and staged during a time when homosexuality was not just socially taboo but illegal. The result, stocked with bawdy humor, droll dialogue, cross-dressing, and perpetually revolving doors, is part screwball comedy and part social commentary.
Stage West’s production, which opened last weekend, is directed with an even, steady hand by the theater’s artistic director, Jim Covault, who also designed the simple, yet highly functional and specific set. Orton allows for little preamble—things start strange and escalate rapidly. Covault’s ensemble is universally up to the task, with Stage West newcomer Patrick Bynane leading the charge as the unassuming-looking, quick-thinking, increasingly ridiculous Dr. Prentice. He’s a perfectly sincere letch, with just the right amount of M.D.-and-testosterone-fueled smirk and smugness. His panic is punctuated by his fits and starts, but he never really lets us see him sweat. Which is unfortunate, since we truly want to see him lose it.
Bynane is well matched by the radiant Dana Schultes as Mrs. Prentice. She goes from buttoned-up to straitjacket-laced-up and makes her character’s descent into (supposed) madness look delightfully easy. Though Covault’s production teeters on the edge of shouty, for the most part everyone is gifted with the precise comedic timing that Butler requires (despite an abnormal amount of flubbed lines from a few of the actors). Orton’s dialogue is so quick, and the timing so precise, however, that it’s hard to blame them.
As the young Geraldine Barclay, Katherine Bourne (also making her Stage West debut) plays the victim of her circumstance with wide-eyed, wild-haired aplomb. Garrett Storms as the erstwhile pageboy, Nick, unfortunately fares worse, his performance lacking compared to those of his older comedic counterparts. Still, the weakest link in the cast is Jerry Russell as Dr. Rance, who turns in a stumbling performance as a gleeful rake. The play’s draggy second act, chock-full of Orton’s seemingly misogynistic commentary and juvenile jokes about a certain missing part of a Winston Churchill statue, can’t maintain the snappy pace of the first.
Still, Orton was onto something, or up to something. When you consider how the boyishly handsome, decidedly un-monogamous playwright died, bludgeoned to death by his less handsome, definitely jealous lover, the darker notes of the play, well-hidden under the witty Oscar Wilde-esque repartee, come through. It gives all this cross-dressing, shrieking madness the sharp edge it needs.