Susan Granger’s review of “What the Butler Saw” (Westport Country Playhouse: Aug., 2016)
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that there’s no butler in Joe Orton’s 1967 comedy. The title refers to peeping through a keyhole, heralding a classic British farce, skewering Freudian psychology, social propriety, sexual norms and government institutions.
In a psychiatric clinic, Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton) is trying to seduce naïve Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton) who has applied for a job as his secretary. Having requested that she remove her clothes, his wife (Patricia Kalember) bursts into his office, wearing a black dominatrix corset under her fur coat.
Although admittedly a nymphomaniac, Mrs. Prentice is hysterical about being “raped” in a closet by Station Hotel bellhop Nicholas Beckett (Chris Ghaffari), who is threatening to blackmail her with photographs of their tryst.
Since Miss Barclay’s cowering behind a curtain in her underwear, Mrs. Prentice hastily dons the dress that Miss Barclay discarded before the unexpected arrival of autocratic Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead), a supervisor from Her Majesty’s Government sent to evaluate the clinic.
Obviously confused Dr. Rance declares Miss Barclay insane, while Police Sergeant Match (Julian Gamble) searches for a missing body part from a statue of Winston Churchill.
“The final chapters of my book are knitting together,” Dr. Rance declares delightedly. “Incest, buggery, outrageous women and strange love-cults catering for depraved appetites.”
Amid the zany disrobing, cross-dressing and donning of straitjackets, Miss Barclay begs Dr. Prentice to clarify the situation by telling the truth. He brusquely replies, “That’s a thoroughly defeatist attitude.”
Director John Tillinger is devoted to the subversive works of Joe Orton, having successfully revived the playwright’s “Loot” and “Entertaining Mr. Sloane.” And he’s previously staged “Butler” at the Manhattan Theatre Club and Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum.
Precise timing is of the essence – and nobody does it better than Paxton Whitehead. He exudes an irresistible lunatic conviction, while the rest of the cast submit to the frenetic silliness involving mistaken identities.
Although its manners and mores seem a bit stale, the levity of “What the Butler Saw” runs through Sept. 10. For tickets and more information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org