What the Butler Saw
Reviewed by Myron Meisel
Mark Taper Forum
Through Dec. 21
Joe Orton (Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot) was certainly a consequential force in the mid-century English language theater with his groundbreaking transgressions of social and sexual mores through his new breed of comedy of very bad manners. When murdered by his lover in 1967 at the age of 34, he had finished What the Butler Saw, generally regarded as his best work, although having never seen it performed, presumably it was not subject to the improving rewrites that would be a customary part of the process.
Orton’s plays were not commercially popular in his lifetime, although with the notoriety of his demise, his abrasively antic voice attracted greater attention, and with it, ongoing success.
As a late adolescent, I was much drawn by his insolent scabrousness. Orton strove in part to bring the wit and verve of Oscar Wilde into a more frankly libertine age still chafing under discredited conventions of propriety, both in society and onstage. In that, he succeeded, and in the process helped a generation of playwrights to build upon his cheek and daring. He was analogous in some ways to Lenny Bruce in standup comedy.
Yet while Orton scoffed at convention, he also embraced it. What the Butler Saw sinks its roots deep into established modes of British farce, while filching gleefully for gags in the spirit of lowbrow contemporary entertainments like the unending (and groan-worthy) “Carry On” film series. In any event, it is not so clear any longer to what extent Orton is merely borrowing, as opposed to the better recourse of stealing. For all its resort to what was then shocking but has now receded into the quaint, What the Butler Saw has acquired a grotesquely antique patina of passé rebellion. What had been liberating seems more mired in period drag.
At the Mark Taper Forum, I frankly cannot discern whether this is primarily a defanging of the text with age or simply a production that fails to animate, let alone levitate, its frenetic and strenuous permutations on established tropes. The comedy certainly boasts no French provenance of lightness, nor an Italianate sense of play, rather than a stompingly Anglo-Saxon willful commitment to proper form, notwithstanding its contemptuous rejection of all propriety.
Orton can be clever, and his bon mots are identifiable as imitation Wildean aphorisms, yet I found myself more often nodding at the gags, like the weathered Borscht Belt wags in the back of the Carnegie Deli in Broadway Danny Rose, rather than genuinely laughing — and I happen to be a congenitally easy mark. The peculiarities of working-class British humor can themselves remain an acquired taste, the action here more pre-Benny Hill than pre-Monty Python.
What the Butler Saw, set in the examining room of an insane insane asylum, also hearkens back to music-hall doctor sketches, which had their own counterpart in American vaudeville (reference The Sunshine Boys). The originality of Orton’s vanguard voice can still be heard, even if in this mounting subsumed by laborious and creaky mechanics.
One wouldn’t expect this to be the case here. Director John Tillinger has a long and storied history of mastery of the genre, with a distinct speciality in Orton, whom he has staged with great success both in New York and at the Taper itself. The cast includes such legendary figures as Frances Barber (a stage luminary with exemplary film credits such as Sammy & Rosie Get Laid and the Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears, both with Stephen Frears) and Paxton Whitehead, who can assay such roles in his sleep. I found my mind wandering instead to unfair imaginings of the eccentric intonations of Ralph Richardson, who originated his part of Dr. Rance in London.
At nearly half a century’s remove, What the Butler Saw remains apprehendible as the landmark work it had originally been, but as a profound and enduring statement of the continuing relevance of farce to the modern sensibility, time has been far more generous to Noises Off or, more pointedly, to the oeuvre of Alan Ayckbourne. In the 1970s, few would have believed such an outcome likely.
Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Dwntwn; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6:30 p.m.; mats Sat., 2:30 & Sun., 1 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (213) 628-2777, www.centertheatregroup.org