“What the Butler Saw” doesn’t quite pull off its finely written farce

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"What the Butler Saw" at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Pictured: Peter Simon Hilton as Dr. Prentice and Robbie Simpson as Nicholas Beckett. Photo by Jerry Dalia

British playwright Joe Orton’s career was ended all too soon when he was murdered by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, in 1967 at age 34. What the Butler Saw, Orton’s third and last play, displays his promise as a satirist and his wit as a writer, and the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is to be commended for offering audiences the chance to encounter this brilliant playwright.

"What the Butler Saw" at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Pictured is John Hutton as Dr. Rance and Allison Layman as Geraldine Barclay. Photo by Jerry Dalia.
“What the Butler Saw” at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Pictured is John Hutton as Dr. Rance and Allison Layman as Geraldine Barclay. Photo by Jerry Dalia.

The show’s title is intentionally misleading. What the Butler Saw is one of a number of similar titles—What the Chambermaid Saw, What the Parrot Saw, A View Through the Keyhole—of early pornographic films. Its use here implies that what we will see will be a raunchy, innuendo-filled evening—a standard British sex farce, a staple of the London stage even today. Orton’s clever use of the title disguises his play’s true satirical nature under a cloak of prurient misbehavior.

Set in a mental hospital, What the Butler Saw starts with the chief of staff, Dr. Prentice, trying to seduce a secretarial applicant. The unexpected appearance of Prentice’s wife sets the farce in motion, eventually drawing in a policeman and a porter from the nearby hotel. The arrival of Dr. Rance, a government inspector, starts to shift the farce into a satirical demonstration of how the willingness to believe an authority figure, no matter how illogical he may be, can lead to repressive disaster. Things go from bad to worse until Orton utilizes an old and most abrupt plot device to bring things to their nonsensical conclusion.

"What the Butler Saw"is showing at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Pictured is Peter Simon Hilton as Dr. Prentice and Jeffrey M. Bender as Sergeant Match. Photo by Jerry Dalia
“What the Butler Saw”is showing at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Pictured is Peter Simon Hilton as Dr. Prentice and Jeffrey M. Bender as Sergeant Match. Photo by Jerry Dalia

Although the play is hilarious, with pointed comments tossed off as lightly as cream puffs, there is something lacking in this production. Director Paul Mullins seems to have staged the play at an erratic, inconsistent pace—sometimes too slow for farce, while at other times too tentative for satire. This is most noticeable in the performance of John Hutton as Dr. Rance, who instead of being portrayed as firmly in command from his first appearance, is instead portrayed as congenial and laid back, making his increasingly authoritarian behavior and illogical thinking less menacing, thereby blunting the satire.

Credit goes to the scenic design by Brittany Vasta. In true farce style, the set contains multiple doors (to the patient rooms, to the office’s waiting room, to the dispensary, and to an outdoor garden), plus a curtained-off area containing an examination table and even a skylight.

"What the Butler Saw" at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Pictured is Allison Layman as Geraldine Barclay and Peter Simon Hilton as Dr. Prentice. Photo by Jerry Dalia
“What the Butler Saw” at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Pictured is Allison Layman as Geraldine Barclay and Peter Simon Hilton as Dr. Prentice. Photo by Jerry Dalia

Nonetheless, this production of What the Butler Saw is worth seeing. It is too rarely produced to miss, and it is frequently funny. For those reasons I suggest you go see What the Butler Saw. I only regret that this production doesn’t hit the farcical and satirical heights it could have.

What the Butler Saw is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.W. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through Oct. 1, 2017. For tickets and information, visit ShakespeareNJ.org