There is no butler in "What the Butler Saw," which opened last week at the Round House Theatre, and even if there were his ability to "see" anything -- as in understand it -- would be seriously suspect. The title is meant to conjure up the zany and sometimes awful farces so dear to the British theater.
But playwright Joe Orton's vision is anamorphous, a genuinely warped sensibility, and the Round House company is only partially successful in capturing it.
Orton, who produced only four plays before he died, was a high school dropout who went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and lived a brief and bizarre life. Indeed, the biographical sketch included in the Round House program is one of the more intriguing things about the whole evening. At RADA Orton met writer Kenneth Halliwell, with whom he lived in artistic isolation. In 1962, the two were sentenced to six months in prison for scribbling in and stealing illustrations from library books -- with which they decorated their apartment. Five years later Halliwell killed Orton and then committed suicide.
The Orton plays, however, live on nearly 20 years later. "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" is often produced, and "Loot" is enjoying a successful revival off-Broadway.
"What the Butler Saw," his last play, takes place in a private mental clinic. Not surprisingly, the psychiatrists are crazier than anyone else, and this premise seems dated, a joke we've already heard. But the madness evolves in dizzyingly helter-skelter fashion, as clothes and genders are swapped and confused with sometimes hilarious results. By the play's end, everyone but the two doctors has been stripped to his or her underwear, and the curtain call resembles a lingerie fashion show.
The one-liners come fast and furious, but they're often about sexual perversion (and perversity) or child molestation, as well as mercilessly lampooning the head-shrinking profession. "I'm a scientist, I state facts," says the government psychiatrist assigned to inspect the premises, who can only think about the best seller he's going to write. "I can't be expected to provide explanations."
When another character says he has a Bible, this doctor asks breathlessly, "Is it autographed?" The whole thing careens wildly to an explosive (literally) climax, with guns going off, wounds bleeding, and reunions of long-lost mothers and fathers and children providing an incestuous twist. The policeman, wearing boxer shorts, holds aloft a bronzed phallus, supposedly part of a statue of Winston Churchill, in a rather sophomoric finale to the whole circus.
Director Max Mayer has orchestrated this lunacy with a deftly wielded eggbeater, but the fine edge of madness is missing from many of the performances. Aside from Daniel De Raey, who plays the government doctor with manic earnestness, the cast navigates the script too carefully. One longs for a Terry-Thomas, someone who could deliver the lines straightforwardly, but with his eyes either literally or figuratively crossed.
As the clinic's proprietor, Jerry Whiddon (Round House's artistic director) is too deadpan, as though he were the only sane person around. Janet Bryant as his wife and Kathy Yarman as his prospective secretary handle the slapstick fairly well, but are also firmly earthbound. And they all seem a tiny bit uncomfortable in their underwear, which is probably exactly why Orton wrote it that way.
What the Butler Saw, by Joe Orton. Directed by Max Mayer, set by Richard H. Young, costumes by Rosemary Pardee-Holz, lighting by Scott Bethke. With Jerry Whiddon, Kathy Yarman, Janet Bryant, Daniel Yates, Daniel De Raey and Steven LeBlanc. At the Round House through March 30.