Thursday, September 1, 2016

Review of "What the Butler Saw"

Playwright Joe Orton, in his short life, created a number of shocking, almost surreal theatrical productions in the mid-1960’s.  These scandalous black comedies were ahead of their time and can still titillate today. What the Butler Saw, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through September 10th, is an outrageous example of his work.  The laughs come in fits and starts in this bawdy, lascivious farce that skewers blundering bureaucrats, puffed-up psychiatrists, and sexual peccadilloes. 

The show opens as Dr. Prentice, a lecherous fool, is interviewing for a new secretary.  He convinces the na├»ve young female applicant to undress behind a curtain in his examining room.  That straightforward request sets off a chain reaction of events that slowly spiral out of control, creating one screwball scenario after another for the assorted eccentrics and misfits.  Part of the fun of the show is how the playwright takes a simple premise and through misdirection, misinterpretation and misinformation creates a madcap world.

L-R:  Robert Stanton, Sarah Manton, and Paxton Whitehead in “What the Butler Saw,” at Westport Country Playhouse.   Photo by Carol Rosegg
The acting corps is first-rate.  Robert Stanton is sterling as the debauched psychiatrist Dr. Prentice.  He enriches his character with a dash of daftness, a dollop of prissiness, and an overwhelming sense of grandeur.  Paxton Whitehead, a familiar face at Westport and a seasoned veteran, is marvelous as the pompous, overeager Dr. Rance.  His wild psychological theories and self-aggrandized actions help ratchet up the absurdity of the play.  Patricia Kalember is deliciously lusty as the somewhat over-the-hill, sexpot wife of Dr. Prentice.  She is both vulnerable and scrappy with her husband and the other characters.  Julian Gamble is wonderfully befuddled as the Sergeant on the beat.  Sarah Manton as Geraldine Barclay, a secretarial applicant who inadvertently sets the whole story in motion, is suitably perplexed as she too is caught in the show’s absurd vortex.  Chris Ghaffari is naughtily cocksure as Nicholas Beckett, a brash, overly confident, sex-driven bellhop.
L-R:   Robert Stanton, Julian Gamble, and Chris Ghaffari in “What the Butler Saw,” at Westport Country Playhouse.  Photo by Carol Rosegg
Director John Tillinger, who has helmed many of Joe Orton’s plays, keeps a self-assured hand on the production.  There are four entranceways onto the stage and the director uses the comings and goings of the actors to great comic effect.  Tillinger allows scenes to slowly build to their essential hilarity.  He has the trust of the performers as many of them parade out in various stages of dress, undress and cross-dressing.

What the Butler Saw, a rarely produced theatrical gem worth a visit at the Westport Country Playhouse through September 10th.

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