What The Butler Saw
nytheatre.com review by J Jordan
September 11, 2010
Funny thing about Joe Orton's play, What the Butler Saw: There is no butler. Unless, of course, you consider the audience the butler; after all what we see is what the butler would have seen if he or she existed. In this particular case, however, there is no butler. Instead there's Dr. Prentice, a psychologist whose methods are questionable at best, his rich and insatiable wife, a sneaky and criminal bellboy, a rival psychologist, a pitiable policeman, and Geraldine Barclay, Dr. Prentice's would-be secretary who also serves as his would-be conquest. This last bit is what sets in motion the farce that is What the Butler Saw, which is as much a satire on the psychology and psychoanalysis of the '60s as it is of the big production style of theatre.
Most of the plays we see these days rely on a few actors, simple costumes, no props, and a couple of spotlights, but not this production. In fact, it's the precise and very of-the-era costumes and props provided by Erica Evans and Dustin Cross, respectively, that in many cases move the play's action forward, among them a pink dress that comes off Miss Barclay about five minutes in as Dr. Prentice foolishly tries (and fails) to seduce her, then ends up on Mrs. Prentice in a case of mistaken identity. And it is mistaken identity, of clothing as much as people, both intended (as they disguise themselves as each other with some frequency) and accidental, that clutters the world that is Mr. Prentice's study, where all of the action takes place.
Once the dress is assumed by Mrs. Prentice, Geraldine Barclay is left naked, of course, and eventually confused for a mental patient. The bellboy, who has some dirty pictures of Mrs. Prentice, is mistaken for the secretary, but not before he dons the dress he stole from Mrs. Prentice. Dr. Prentice is confused for a transvestite and a lunatic by the self-serving and power hungry Dr. Rance, who rather than serve as foil basically claims the stage for himself. The good police sergeant, Match, almost gets away without being sucked in, but, having made the mistake of visiting Dr. Prentice's office looking for Geraldine Barclay, whom he believes has stolen a very personal piece from the private parts of a statue of Winston Churchill that killed her mother, is lied to, shot, given large doses of sedatives, draped in Mrs. Prentice's dress, and mistaken for a dead woman.
Are you following me? Well, fear not, for the excellent production team, steadied by the very capable hand of director Zak Hoogendyk, guides us through it nimbly. Hoogendyk's sense of timing, as with that of his fine cast, is impeccable, as it has to be for such a complicated piece to work. Clearly, the costume changes and prop pieces—some shoes, some flowers, a bust, several books, and LOTS of drinks—alone could prove too much for some to handle, but all these things find their places just as each actor hits (and keeps) his or her stride. I can assure you, none of it looked easy; in fact, it reminded me of synchronized swimming at the Olympics, only a lot more fun, and generally less wet.
Having never seen a version of the play, nor having read it, to be honest, I sat down expecting some old school theatre. Luckily for us, material that could seem outdated is rendered fresh. Much of the thanks for that should be directed toward Emily Taplin Boyd and the delightful Nicole Fitzpatrick, both of whom reminded me that women in theater are occasionally allowed to be funny. It's so refreshing.
Although his character could hardly be called the "straight" man in this comedy, David Sedgwick's Dr. Prentice is very good at convincingly working on his feet to get himself out of jam after jam. You want to feel sorry for him but can't, because his rapidly degenerating situation is too amusing to want to repair. Kane Prestenback as the naught, naughty, naughty bellboy Beckett, and Nat Cassidy as the put-upon Sergeant Match bring the laughs to a fever pitch but without pandering by being cheesy in any way. Each of these actors in turn steals a scene from the other, and it's very engaging to watch. Still, once he enters the stage, Tom Cleary, as the bureaucratic, anal-retentive, and, as it turns out, wee bit diabolical Dr. Rance trumps them all as he slowly gives in to the insanity with which he labels everyone else. At one point, after yet another monologue that is part story, part diagnosis, part diatribe, and totally off the mark he gives himself a shot to calm himself down. It's probably a good idea.
For those of you who think the work of Joe Orton has nothing to offer a modern audience, think again. What the Butler Saw is full of sex, drugs, and crime. It's also got great lighting by Austin R. Smith and a solid sound design by Ann Warren. Don't be deceived by the beautiful and elaborate set design by Starlet Jacobs; like the society it represents, it's just a sham for what's really going on.
If you haven't been to see anything at The Gallery Players, now is the time. What the Butler Saw is a great way to start what looks to be a very exciting season.