Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of WHAT THE BUTLER SAW at the Westport Country Playhouse
Extended Through September 11th
While there may not be any actual butlers among the cast of Westport Country Playhouse’s What the Butler Saw, what is present in abundance is rampant sex, adultery, alcohol, drugs, and wholly questionable sanity, as well as the cheeky bashing of social norms and the fields of psychiatry, government, and law enforcement. And most importantly, with a killer cast and masterful direction by theatre veteran John Tillinger, there are copious belly laughs in this taut, brazen, 1969 farce penned with gusto by the late, great English playwright Joe Orton.
I recently read an article which highlighted some of the differences between British humour and American humor (same word, different spelling!). One frequent and obvious distinction is that in British comedy, there is a melding of deadpan serious with the absurd – wherein usually fairly restrained, sober (but by no means nondrinking) people find themselves in altogether outrageous situations yet they come off as entirely unruffled by the very raucous goings-on. These stories and the characters in them also don’t necessarily require any real resolution or epiphany, which contrasts with American comedy in that the latter usually culminates in some kind of moral, life lesson, or change of heart. The Brits just plod through their hysterically sticky, tricky situations…until they ultimately find themselves in yet another, equally as preposterous predicament.
And this is the crux of What the Butler Saw – a play whose title is an old-time reference to the sexual escapades of the upper class which often were viewed by their domestic help as they peered through their masters’ keyholes for their own amusement. But we as the audience get to be on the butler’s end so to speak, and therefore the voyeurs to the zany exploits of Orton’s colorful characters; antics which begin almost immediately in the private hospital office of naughty psychiatrist Dr. Prentice (whose unfulfilled marriage already is rife with infidelity) who endeavors in every way possible to get busy with his secretarial interviewee, Geraldine Barclay. The naïve Miss Barclay disrobes when Dr. Prentice instructs her to do so under the guise of an examination to determine her competency as a potential candidate (because yes, that’s necessary for one who is to provide stenographic services). When his likewise sex-crazed and well-sauced wife, Mrs. Prentice, barges in unannounced, soon followed by her most recent paramour and blackmailer, lecherous Station Hotel bellboy Nicholas Beckett the plot thickens. Then enters an egomaniacal Dr. Rance, an utterly misguided psychiatrist and government inspector, and finally a lumbering and somewhat dull police officer, Sergeant Match. Before we’ve even comfortably settled into our plush velvet seats, madness and mayhem already has ensued – and it gives us pause, because here before us it just may be that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
Orton is quoted as having said “I thought about how fashionable madness is at the moment…Of course it’s the perennial fascination of most people watching lunatics. Four hundred years ago they’d’ve gone to Bedlam for the afternoon. Now a director and actors recreate a madhouse in a theatre…but there isn’t a lunatic in sight – just the doctors and nurses.”
One will wonder who in fact is sane and who is not in What the Butler Saw, although it is a point that matters little (as in life). In cat-and-mouse fashion, the characters race about, in and out the four doors of the set, hiding behind curtains, and darting outside into the courtyard. They’re in the halls, in drag, and in the nude. They’re popping pills, tossing back booze, and doped up with hypodermics. They’re telling lies, truths, and everything in between. With dialogue and action that is non-stop, it is the brilliance of the cast and the spectacular direction that makes this over-the-top farce hit every high note and not one low.
Robert Stanton as Dr. Prentice alternates seamlessly as both cat and mouse – the hunter and the prey. His bumbling and stumbling is endearing and sidesplittingly funny as he seems completely unable to tell a single nugget of truth. His wife, Mrs. Prentice, is the divine Ms. Patricia Kalember (whom I loved in TV’s Thirtysomething and Sisters) who plays the ultimate “cougar” with claws and a bite to match. She’s deliciously sardonic, completely drunk, and totally rocks the stage in racy black lingerie. Sarah Manton as Geraldine Barclay is simply brilliant as the young secretary wannabe who’s thrown into every imaginable predicament, from traipsing around in her underclothes, to being continually stuffed behind an exam curtain, to having her hair chopped off, and then being tossed in a straitjacket. Manton is no stranger to the role of Geraldine and she clearly has mastered every delightful nuance of the character.
The power-hungry inspector Dr. Rance is played by a superb Paxton Whitehead who received rave reviews alongside Manton for his performance in Butler at the Mark Taper Forum. The ultimate windbag whose main goal is to discover something worthy of publishing, Whitehead delivers Rance’s often outrageous and illogical rantings like the imaginings of a delusional mental patient. Chris Ghaffari, whom I’d seen in Hartford Stage’s Romeo & Juliet was spot-on wonderful as Nicholas Beckett whether he appeared onstage as the glib bellhop, as his own cross-dressing alter ego, or completely in the buff – and yes, I said completely. Like Stanton’s Dr. Prentice, Nicholas played the game of pursuit so well, maneuvering in and out of every situation in the wiliest of ways. Julian Gamble as Sergeant Match was the ultimate straight man, yet equally as fetching in a leopard print dress, and appearing hysterically slurred after downing enough pills to knock out an entire hospital ward.
The wit of Orton’s work gave this troupe an incredible starting point, but the skillful direction by Tillinger kept the pace and the hilarity at Broadway-level perfection. This is not Tillinger’s first time doing Butler, as he also directed Whitehead and Manton at Mark Taper. He also is a veteran director of many of Orton’s other works; and his credits both On- and Off-Broadway would make your head spin. The number of theatre greats with whom he has worked would take reams of paper (or blog space) to fill. Shout outs also go to James Noone for his incredible attention to detail in his fabulous scenic design; Laurie Churba for spectacular costume design; John McKernon for lighting; Scott Killian for sound; Elizabeth Smith for dialect consulting; Robert Westley for movement and firearms choreography; Karin White for props; and Tara Rubin Casting for assembling this tight ensemble. Kudos to production stage manager Megan Smith and assistant stage manager Ed Herman, and last but not least, Mark Lamos as Westport’s Artistic Director. Thank you for bringing exceptional theatre to Connecticut!
This one’s a must-see! It won’t take tranquilizers or a straitjacket to keep you riveted to your seat, but there’s no guarantee you might not need some medical attention (or at least a few pain relievers) after two hours of sidesplitting belly laughs. But as the saying goes, laughter really is the best medicine!
The kind of people who always go on about whether a thing is in good taste invariably have very bad taste. — Joe Orton
The playwright Joe Orton had a relatively brief but prolific career. He passed on way too soon (beaten to death by his lover) but he left a legacy of writing that still has relevance for audiences today. For some, Joe Orton plays are like fine Scotch: a taste that must be acquired, but after it is, a mere sip will intoxicate you. And such is the case with one of his best known plays, What the Butler Saw. It’s a classic British farce. But, if you know Orton and his work, it is so much more than that. It is a peeling away of the layers of polite society to see what’s really going on underneath. No one and nothing escapes Orton’s sharp satirical wit. Indeed, Butler is not only an indictment of the scandal-ridden middle to upper class, but it also liberally takes pot shots at the field of psychiatry.
Okay, I’ll admit that I was not familiar with the play and asked my wife and co-reviewer after the first ten minutes where the hell was the butler? But she whispered, and I soon realized that we, as the audience, were the voyeurs peeping through the keyhole watching the rather sordid antics of people we consider “normal,” “respectable” and even supposed “professionals.” (It also helped to read the origins of the phrase in the program during intermission.)
While the plethora of plot twists and turns make a concise description almost impossible, suffice to say that the action takes place at an asylum where insanity prevails – the glitch being that the insanity emanates from the purportedly sane and “respectable” characters.
The production of What the Butler Saw by the Westport County Playhouse is fabulous. Veteran director, John Tillinger (who has worked with everyone in the business and has a longer resume than the Mississippi — see our interview) has done an absolutely masterful job of creating a quintessential Orton – or, as it is formally known, Ortonesque which is sometimes used to refer to work characterized by a similarly dark, yet farcical cynicism. (I know that’s true because I took it off the internet). Mr. Tillinger’s experience can not only be seen in the exquisite staging, blocking, and pacing of the play, but in the wonderful performances he extracted from the cast.
And speaking of the talented cast, they were simply wonderful — not a spanner in the works, as the British would say. Robert Stanton as Dr. Prentice was spot-on as the hapless psychiatrist who lets his id out of control and as Shakespeare said, “Therein lies the rub.” Chris Ghaffari (whom we loved as Romeo in Romeo & Juliet) was both hilarious and charming as the hunky Nicholas Beckett. Mr. Ghaffari also proved that nimble streaking is a prominent tool in his arsenal of talents. Stage and film actress Patricia Kalember was ravishingly delightful as the ravaged Mrs. Prentice. Her comedic timing was in perfect sync with her fellow actors (see our interview). Julian Gamble as Sergeant Match and Sarah Manton as Geraldine Barclay brought their formidable acting chops to two versatile roles that vacillated between serious and seriously over the top (but in the best way possible). Finally, Paxton Whitehead, who like Mr. Tillinger, has a resume to die for, was brilliantly engaging as Dr. Rance.
The realistic set served as a nice counterpoint to the zaniness that occurred on stage. Kudos to Scenic Designer James Noone.
As I’ve noted in other reviews, I’m a smiler and maybe a chuckler at times. But I must admit, I was guffawing and even belly laughing. The jokes were flying fast and furious. One barely had time to recover, before Orton’s sharp wit would strike again.
The trick with farce – and this is why the actors and director John Tillinger are so good at it – is that they all play it straight – as if they didn’t know it was a farce. In such a complicated plot with complex language, it’s easy for an actor and/or director to cross the line where jumping the shark can be commonplace and then the farce stops being a farce and becomes a flop. That is far from the situation here. The laughs are organic and come naturally without a hint of being forced or strained.
Joe Orton’s work should always be seen when possible. But this particular production is a keeper and should not be missed.