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Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

What the Butler Saw
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
Review by Cameron Kelsall


Peter Simon Hilton and Robbie Simpson
Photo by Jerry Dalia
Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw doesn't shock its audience as it once did. How could it? The play premiered in 1969—just two years after both the decriminalization of male homosexuality in Britain and the gruesome murder of its author at the hands of his mentally disturbed lover. The mere mention of lesbians, transvestism or rape were enough to send the West End reeling. Fast forward nearly fifty years and the nudity and simulated sex that casually punctuate the proceedings seem blasé, no worse than anything you'd find on network television.

Yes, the days when a cheeky sex farce like What the Butler Saw sent shockwaves are mostly gone. But the play, like most of Orton's corpus, can still be a rollicking good time when handled well. Unfortunately, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey missed the memo. Paul Mullins' sterile production comes across as chaste as the freshman class at Brigham Young.

A successful staging of this particular play must walk a very fine line. Like his Angry Young Men contemporaries in the British theatrical world of the fifties and sixties, Orton excelled at burrowing beneath the stiff upper lip of the British middle class. But whereas John Osborne or Harold Pinter primarily ground their deconstruction of cultural mores in gritty realism, Orton's work favors outlandish dialogue, outsized characters, and situations that strain credulity. He was an anarchist with the heart of a farceur, and both of those elements should be foregrounded in representations of his work.

In that sense, the physical aspects of his production succeed. Brittany Vasta's lived-in doctor's office set suggests respectability and authority, with just the right amount of peculiarity to communicate that things are slightly off in this particular examining room. Kristin Isola's stylish costumes capture modish London perfectly. And one cannot praise Emilia Martin's wigs highly enough. The flips! The up-dos! I half expected Lulu to walk in, spark up a fag, and start crooning "To Sir with Love."

But it's clear things are amiss from nearly the first moment. What the Butler Saw begins with Dr. Prentice (Peter Simon Hilton) itching to shag Geraldine Barclay (Allison Layman), his prospective secretary. That's just the beginning. The ensuing two hours include blackmail and lewd photographs; the suggestion of nymphomania, pederasty, and incest; cross-dressing and corrupt government officials; and a deus ex machina that involves, among other things, a bronzed replica of Sir Winston Churchill's penis. What could go wrong?

In Mullins' hands, the answer is: a lot. His production betrays very little understanding of farce, where flawless timing, rapid-fire delivery, and an escalating sense of mania are necessary. The entrances and exits sometimes stagger. The snappy lines spin out as languorously as Wagnerian preludes. But most of all, everything always feels perfectly under control. Things always are, of course, in a farce—the play hurtles forward toward a perfectly engineered conclusion, with everything in its right place. But we're not supposed to know that. Throughout the production, I never once felt my pulse quicken or my jaw ache from laughing at richly earned situational humor. In farce, that's a problem.

The cast help matters little. The best work comes from Robbie Simpson, who shows a keen understanding of high farce, as the scheming bellhop Nicholas Beckett. Simpson doesn't shy away from going full camp when his character is called upon to cross-dress. Layman also comes across winningly, although her accent remains inconsistent all evening. (Better, though, than Jeffrey M. Bender as the befuddled Sergeant March, who doesn't even try). Vanessa Morosco, as Prentice's lascivious wife, looks statuesque with a tumbler of bourbon in her hand, but her line readings offer little evidence of style. Similarly, Hilton and John Hutton (as the bureaucratic Dr. Rance) rush their dialogue, allowing some of Orton's best jokes to sputter into oblivion. (Example: "No madman ever accepts madness. Only the sane do that.")

One longs for the thrill that must have accompanied productions of this play back when it was still new and daring. I'd settle for a production that's competent and somewhat entertaining. Sadly here, What the Butler Saw is better left unsaid.

What the Butler Saw continues through Sunday, October 1, 2017, at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison NJ. Tickets ($49-62) can be purchased online at www.shakespearenj.org or by calling 973-408-5600.


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