Tepid What The Butler Saw
The set-up is classic. Dr. Prentice, the head of a private psychiatric clinic, is in the process of successfully seducing Geraldine, the young woman whom he is interviewing for employment as his secretary. At that moment, Dr. Prentice's wife unexpectedly arrives, forcing Dr. Prentice to hide his half-undressed quarry behind the closed curtains of his bed-like couch. In short order, Mrs. Prentice will be followed by Nicholas Beckett, hotel bellboy (in full uniform with cap) who has seduced her at the hotel where she was staying, and is now attempting to blackmail her with photos which he has taken of their activity. Next to arrive is Dr. Rance, a pompous and irrational Government inspector heady with power. Later, Sergeant March of the London police arrives on the scene to further complicate matters.
However, although What the Butler Saw contains all the trappings of a traditional farce, at its heart, it is a satire. The title, which generically suggests a comedy, has nothing to do with the play at hand. The satire is both on the conventions of farce, and on all manner of social and political issues, including government bureaucracy, psychiatry, religion, marriage and sexual mores. Each and very character is obsessed with sex, and homosexuality openly takes its place alongside heterosexuality in the pantheon of sexual obsessions. While not as shocking as it must have seemed 35 years ago (the unexpurgated text was first performed in New York at the Manhattan Theatre Club about a decade ago, I doubt that it is the one that Two River is using), the play is certainly still out there, especially when it makes light of pederasty (Dr. Rance to Nicholas: "Is it policemen or young boys you're after? At your age, it's high time you came to a decision.").
The dialogue and characters are impossibly daft even by the standards for farce. There is cross dressing. However, the witty lines suggest Oscar Wilde (Dr. Prentice: "Unnatural vice can ruin a man". Dr. Rance: "Ruin follows the accusation not the vice ....").
As the events of the play all spring from Dr. Prentice's attempt at seduction, the problems of this production appear to stem from the decision to stage the play within the theatre's proscenium frame. The stage thrust is intrinsic to the theatre’s exceptional design and is ringed by the first several rows of the gently curved seating. For this production, it has been removed creating an enormous distance between the stage and the first row of seats. The stage feels remote and distant in what is an exceptionally comfortable and intimate theatre when the thrust is employed. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that almost none of the action occurs fully downstage. Whether it was due to a slight reverberation, poor enunciation or projection, or simply the need to better modulate the tone and speed of the rapid fire British accented dialogue, it was not possible for me to hear and sort out many of the words. The effort to do so was all consuming. I was able to note that Joe Orton had written terrifically witty and funny stuff, but I was getting precious little fun out of it.
The lion's share of the verbal humor falls to Bob Sorenson in the role of Dr. Rance. Rance, representing psychiatry and government bureaucracy, is the maddest hatter at this particular party. He remains fixed in his initial analyses no matter what the facts are, and there is no one whom he would not find certifiable. Much of the balance of the verbal humor falls to Matthew Boston in the guise of the most foolish Dr. Prentice.
The physical and visual humor falls mostly to Allison Briner (Mrs. Prentice), Simon Kendall (Nicholas), John Keating (Sgt. March). Amanda Rowan (Geraldine) provides the female eye candy essential to sex farces. They all appear up to the task at hand, but the problems inherent in the production undermine their efforts. The large, handsome and dimensional set by Jeremy Doucette is most pleasing to the eye (it elicits applause when the curtain first rises). However, it contributes to distancing the play from the audience. Director Brendon Fox seems to have brought out all the problems of the Two River facility and failed to take advantage of its considerable strengths. The lack of impact suggests that the comic timing of the performance is not sharp. However, it may be unfair to place all of the blame for the evening's disappointment on Fox. The quote from Oscar Wilde in Fox's program biography - "the truth is rarely pure and never simple" – would seem to be germane here.
Given the fact that What the Butler Saw is a three (sometimes four) door farce, I understand the impulse to stage it within the proscenium. However, scenic designer Neil Prince and director Robert M. Rechnitz demonstrated that the proscenium and thrust stage of Two River are most conducive to farce with their world class production of You Can't Take It With You which inaugurated it last spring. That staging could have provided a model for the current production.
It is worth noting that with three consecutive knockout productions - Visiting Mr. Green, All My Sons and Waiting for Godot - and its unique and ambitious Samuel Beckett Festival, the Two River Theatre Company added great distinction to the 2005-2006 New Jersey theatre season.
What the Butler Saw continues performances (Wed. – Sat. 8 p.m.; Sat. & Sun. 3 p.m.) through May 28, 2006 at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org/
What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton; directed by Brendon Fox