|Chris Ghaffari and Julian Gamble|
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Farce and agendas are strange bedfellows. Farce is, by its very nature, silly, a lighthearted romp, but when you also “have something to say,” as the playwright Joe Orton did when he penned What the Butler Saw in the late 60s, you run the risk of working, or writing, at cross purposes. The inclusion of “messages” in farce is not a problem if they deal with eternal verities, but Orton’s concerns – the taking of Freudian psychology to unsupportable conclusions and the repressed nature of British society – now are covered in cobwebs. Thus, we have the “slamming door” elements of farce bearing a burden they shouldn’t be asked to carry. Those not cued into what was on Orton’s mind as he wrote What the Butler Saw may find themselves scratching their heads, mumbling “Really?”
That there is an agenda is manifest in the play’s title, for there is no butler in the play. The title refers to a device called a mutoscope, a precursor of motion pictures. As soon as it was invented (late 19th century) it was put to pornographic use. Those voyeuristically inclined could, after dropping a coin in a slot, view a succession of pictures. In the case of “What the Butler Saw,” it’s a keyhole view of the lady of the house stripping down to her underwear. Not surprisingly, this particular offering was extremely successful and profitable.
Then there’s the Freudian slant. From Orton’s diary (parts of which are reprinted in the program): “I thought how fashionable madness is at the moment…” Not just madness, however, but the whole concept of repressed desires and the sexuality of children (real and imagined) that lurks in the subconscious of their adult selves.
So, what’s the problem? Well, the characters in a farce, as in all plays, must have believable motivations if the audience is to “buy in.” In the case of Butler, that motivation is suspect right from the start, for the early actions of one of the lead characters serves Orton’s agenda rather than being intrinsic to the character. As the curtain rises, we are in the office of Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton), a psychiatrist who runs a mental institution (again from Orton’s diary: “…there isn’t a lunatic in sight – just the doctors and nurses.”). A door opens and in walks Geraldine (Sarah Manton), an applicant for a secretarial job. It soon becomes evident that she is woefully under-qualified, so the good doctor’s reaction is to ask her to take off her clothes so he can “examine” her. Surprisingly, Geraldine complies with this odd request…and we are off to the races…and the head-scratching.
Of course, the good doctor’s wife, Mrs. Prentice (Patricia Kalember) walks in on the proceedings, followed by a bell hop, Nicholas (Chris Ghaffari) who has had a recent sexual encounter with the doctor’s wife (and has pictures to prove it – ah, sweet blackmail). Next appears Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead), a government official charged with evaluating Prentice’s institute, and finally a police officer, Sergeant Match (Julian Gamble), who is investigating claims that Nicholas has dallied with a group of schoolgirls. What follows is a lot of cross-dressing and Freudian babble, mostly delivered by the incomparable Whitehead, and a wrap-up that is part Dickens, part Shakespeare with a bit of deus ex machina thrown in for good measure and, oh yes, the idea that sex in a closet can save a marriage.
This was all heady, even scandalous, stuff when it first appeared – the rattling of the skeletons (and other items – or people) in the British closet. Five decades on it seems, at best, inane. The production, directed by John Tillinger, does have its moments, most of them compliments of Whitehead, who has the unique ability to be both pompous and befuddled at the same time. The rest of the cast members, many in various states of undress, do their best to make what is going on believable, but it’s an up-hill battle. Kalember, who for much of the evening is dressed as a dominatrix, has to fight against her costuming to be taken seriously, while Manton has to sell that she willingly disrobes for the doctor and then, with equal willingness, goes along with Prentice’s desperate attempts to hide the fact that he tried to seduce her. Why should she?
As the bell boy, Ghaffari has to sell that what he really wants is to become Prentice’s secretary (go figure) or maybe he’s just into blackmail, or…, Gamble is required to be oblivious to what is happening, and Stanton must be the engine that drives this ill-conceived train as it rattles and wobbles down the track.
All in all, Butler probably reads better than it plays, because with a reading you can ponder and savor much of Orton’s jabs at British society and Freudian excessiveness circa 1970 (if you care to), but a play is meant to be staged. Though there was much laughter on opening night, it was not uproarious, and looking around at the audience there were many who were silent, because much of what is happening up on the stage is simply no longer funny, if it ever was.
What the Butler Saw runs through Sept. 10. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.