When Joe Orton wrote "What the Butler Saw" in 1967, the Beatles were still together, Britain still viewed Sir Winston Churchill as nearly superhuman, and nudity onstage was still a shocking proposition.
Orton was murdered by his lover soon after finishing the play, so he never saw the changes wrought in the world since. While it may not hold as many shocks as it did in 1967, "What the Butler Saw," now onstage at Signature Theatre, keeps its creator’s sense of humor.
While he was alive, Orton was called "the Oscar Wilde of the welfare state," and he said he hoped to write a play that lived up to Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest."
In "What the Butler Saw," he even mirrored some of the conventions, creating a British comedy of manners centered on sex, cross-dressing, psychopathology and drugs. It’s intended as a farce, and some of the shocks have worn away since the late 1960s. Some of it has been toned down, too, with nudity now replaced by men and women onstage in their underwear.
But the comedy of the play has survived, and emerges intact in Signature’s production. The play centers on Dr. Prentice, a psychologist in charge of a psychiatric clinic. As the play opens, he is interviewing Geraldine Barclay, an impressionable young woman who has applied to be his secretary – so impressionable that he persuades her to undress under the guise of giving her a medical examination.
But Prentice’s attempts at seduction are interrupted by his the unexpected arrival of his wife. As he tries to hide his infidelities from her, he and everyone else around him descend into chaos.
It’s the general plot of many drawing room comedies, but Orton seeds the play with an iconoclastic view of psychology, and a scathing view of the mores of the British middle class.
Kevin Reese provides a calm center for the play as Dr. Prentice, going from calm and collected at the beginning of the play to soiled, stained and disheveled, mentally and physically, at the end. Deanna Harris, a Hayes nominee for her role in Gypsy last year at Signature, plays Geraldine, who serves as Prentice’s conscience, as well as his intended paramour.
Conrad Feininger seems to be channeling Albert Finney as Dr. Rance, a government psychologist monitoring Prentice’s work who uses the chaos at the clinic to pursue his own glorification.
The motion onstage is fast and furious, with nearly 150 entrances and exits through the four doors in Prentice’s office. The speed means that it’s easy to lose track of some of the lines. But Jonathan Bernstein, directing his first play at Signature, keeps things clear and doesn’t let the action descend into a muddle.