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Just before he was bludgeoned to death by his lover in 1967, Joe Orton was working on a screenplay for a third Beatles movie, titled Up Against It. The script, which portrayed the Fabs as adulterers, murderers, and transvestites, was not well received by Beatles manager Brian Epstein; it surely would not have been made, even if the writer had outlived Epstein, who died of a drug overdose two weeks after Orton’s murder.
The Signature Theatre’s staging of Orton’s What the Butler Saw makes the most of the playwright’s tenuous link with Beatlemania, opening and closing the play with bits of “Hey Jude” and other Lennon-McCartney hits. These introductory snippets, summoned from the radio in his office by Dr. Prentice (Kevin Reese), are part of the wittiest moment of the evening. As he fiddles with the dial, Beatles tunes yield to a reminder that audience members turn off their cell phones, a report on a gas explosion that’s integral to the play’s plot, and a report from Czechoslovakia, which has just been invaded by Soviet troops. This establishes that the production is set in 1968, the year before the posthumously published What the Butler Saw actually made its stage debut.
The chronology is vital, because Orton’s work could exist only in a narrow window of opportunity: between 1963—when “sexual intercourse was invented” in Britain, according to Philip Larkin’s poem—and the early ’70s, when feminism took to the barricades. In addition to savaging his homeland’s political and social commonplaces, Orton meant to satirize the English bedroom farce, as the play’s title obliquely reveals: There is no butler to glimpse anything, scandalous or otherwise. Despite this tweak to audience expectations, however, the play no longer seems much more than a sex comedy. It’s angrier and more nihilistic than mainstream ’60s theater, but it has dated as badly as the bourgeois shows Orton was mocking.
The opening scene is certainly cut from the same gray flannel as other British sex farces. Interviewing naive young Geraldine Barclay (Deanna Harris) for a secretarial job, Dr. Prentice convinces her that he must examine her in the nude to properly evaluate her dictation skills. The second step in the doctor’s plan to seduce Geraldine is interrupted, however, when the promiscuous, bisexual Mrs. Prentice (Maura McGinn) enters. Geraldine hides, naked, behind a curtain, and Mrs. Prentice puts on the young woman’s dress, thinking it’s her own. This leaves Geraldine with nothing much to wear as the doctor’s office is invaded successively by hotel bellboy Nicholas Beckett (Daniel Frith), who has incriminating photos of Mrs. Prentice; Dr. Rance (Conrad Feininger), a batty government mental-health inspector; and Sergeant Match (Tony Gudell), a cop investigating the missing “part”—guess which one—of a Winston Churchill statue damaged in the gas explosion. In his attempt to get Geraldine clothed and out of the building, Dr. Prentice encourages various people to disrobe, precipitating a frenzy of dressing, undressing, and cross-dressing.
What the Butler Saw is a door-slamming farce, and James Kron-zer’s clever set provides director Jonathan Bernstein and his cast with five doorways to accommodate the play’s roughly 150 comings and goings. The audience even enters the theater through one of the stage doors, to emphasize the portals’ significance. The door-slammer genre, however, was designed for bigger spaces than Signature’s former bumper-plating plant. Nearly everything in this production is too big and too broad for the room. Even silent moments are overstated, as in the culmination of an elaborate bit with a bouquet of flowers that Dr. Prentice uses to hide Geraldine’s underwear and shoes. To fit the latter items in the flower vase, the doctor must cut off the stems. After the vessel is emptied, the blossoms are replaced. It’s obvious that, without the stems, the flowers will disappear into the vase, but when they do the doc nonetheless does an ostentatious double take.
These are demanding roles that require physical and verbal dexterity, as well as the maintenance of credible British accents, and the cast acquits itself well. If most of the performances seem a little high-pitched, that’s surely what Orton’s lines demand. A rapid-fire mix of vaudeville-era gags and mid-’60s provocations, the play is both strenuous and rather tired. It directs barbs at Churchill, psychiatry, and her majesty’s government, but today the most striking themes are the playful glorification of alcohol- and drug-fueled oblivion—Dr. Prentice is forever running to the closet to get more bottles of booze—and the celebration of rape as a liberating experience. Orton may have been a social renegade, but his satirical worldview sounds a lot like the ’60s Vegas patter of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, as documented on The Rat Pack Live at the Sands, a 1963 recording just recently released. Orton, of course, doesn’t make quite the same sort of “fruit” jokes as Frank and Dino, but his misogyny is even more pronounced than theirs.
Signature is billing What the Butler Saw as “a comic masterpiece,” which is not an uncommon claim. Orton seems to have intended a similar assertion by opening and closing his play with a burlesque of The Importance of Being Earnest. Although set in a society far less like our own than Orton’s was, Wilde’s comedy has held up much better; it’s wittier, more sophisticated, and substantially more humane. To clear the palate after Orton’s play, I turned to another script that takes liberties with Earnest, Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. The difference between the two is quickly apparent: Where Stoppard provides ideas, Orton offers only rancor and schtick. In his lust to affront his benighted era, the playwright made no provisions for audiences that might live in a less shockable age than his own. CP