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STAGE REVIEW : Satisfying Farce in LATC Version of Orton's 'What the Butler Saw'

December 21, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theatre Critic

There was a young nun from Burnt Norton

Who was mad for the plays of Joe Orton.

When one came to town,

She would kick off her gown,

And. . . .

No need to go on. The point is that the third play in the Joe Orton cycle, the one that we didn't get at the Mark Taper Forum this summer, has opened, very satisfactorily, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

"What the Butler Saw" was the script that Orton had just finished when he died in 1967. It is a purer play than either "Loot" or "Entertaining Mr. Sloane," which is not to say that it is any less randy. But it comes closer to the geometry of pure farce, as in Oscar Wilde, as in burlesque comedy.

The setting is a posh nuthouse run by a certain Dr. Prentice (Christopher Neame). He is interviewing a winsome young thing who aspires to be his stenographer (Jane Windsor). Obviously it will be necessary to examine her qualifications. Simply step behind that screen, my dear. . . .

Enter the doctor's virago wife (Jane Carr), with a bellboy in tow (John Cameron Mitchell). The bellboy is soon down to his skivvies, which is the general trend of the plot. In this play even a policeman (the wonderful Peter Bromilow) gets interfered with.

To be absolutely truthful, the fun doesn't quite come to a boil. Traditional farce seems to run on fear, rather like tragedy. If it doesn't particularly matter whether the characters get found out--Dr. Prentice by his wife, for example--their antics can seem a bit forced.

Perhaps the play needed an ogre of true respectability, like Lady Bracknell. However, Orton didn't much believe in true respectability. He did take great pleasure in bogus respectability, and that's the fun of "What the Butler Saw" (which has no butler). Even when caught with their hands in the cookie jar, Orton's characters never quit pretending that they are perfectly guiltless and in perfect charge of the situation. This reminds us of any number of people in the headlines.

The maddest is a government psychiatrist named Dr. Rance. Actor Dakin Matthews explodes him joyously. At all times, his Dr. Rance is whipping off his glasses or whipping out a tape-measure. He is one those people who try to tame reality by sticking a label on it and putting it in a bottle, and his fear that the genie is out of the bottle is manifest. Yet it's not an overly analytical performance; Matthews makes all his points, yet keeps it funny.

Everyone else does the same, from Carr's haughty shrew (haughty even in her garter belt) to Bromilow's bumbling bobby. Director Charles Marowitz last delivered us a rather heavy-handed "Importance of Being Earnest." Here he supplements Orton's text with clever sight gags, without insisting that they be seen as his invention: the author can have the credit.

The evening goes firmly but lightly, with particular attention to the play of language, not just to speaking it well, but to using it to provide information about the characters. Mitchell's provincial accent tells us that he's not from London, and that this has brought him plenty of tips, plus other adventures.

It's a witty show visually too. D. Martyn Bookwalter declines to gag around with the setting. It is as solid an examining room as Dr. Prentice's outrageous fees can buy, including a double couch for those particularly intimate cases. Christine Lewis Hover's costumes are also credible, with special emphasis on the underwear department.

'WHAT THE BUTLER SAW' Joe Orton's play, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Director Charles Marowitz. Producer Diane White. Set D. Martyn Bookwalter. Lighting Douglas D. Smith. Costumes Christine Lewis Hover. Sound design Jon Gottlieb. Stage manager Bill Holland. With Christopher Neame, Jane Windsor, Jane Carr, John Cameron Mitchell, Dakin Matthews, Peter Bromilow. Plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Closes Jan. 17. (213) 627-5599.

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