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Orton's '60s Farce Still Packs a Jolt

Theater review: South Coast Repertory offers a mostly engaging revival of the British satirist's 'What the Butler Saw.'


Joe Orton's farce masterpiece, "What the Butler Saw," obeys the absurd logic of a crackpot world. To begin with, it has no butler (unless it's Orton). We, the audience, are the collective witness. Besides, a sensible character like a butler would only have gotten in Orton's way.

If he'd needed an explanatory title, he might have called the play--first produced in 1969, two years after he was killed by his lover--"The Lunatic Variations."

It is, among other things, a sendup of Freudian quackery, a priapic spoof of sexual identity, a satire on marital fidelity, a delicious mockery of hero worship, a put-down of religion, a parody of farce itself and, line for line, probably the brassiest, most subversive slapstick comedy of the British stage.

"What the Butler Saw"--getting a funny if uneven workout in an eye-catching production at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa--is set in a private mental clinic outside London and immediately displays Orton's genius for epigrammatic dialogue.

As the play begins, Dr. Prentice (head of the clinic) sets about interviewing Geraldine Barclay (seeking her first secretarial job): "I'm going to ask you a few questions. . . . Who was your father?"

She: "I've no idea who my father was."

He: "I'd better be frank, Miss Barclay. I can't employ you if you're in any way miraculous. . . . You did have a father?"

She: "Oh, I'm sure I did. My mother was frugal in her habits, but she'd never economize unwisely."

Prentice, a lecher who hasn't had sex with his nymphomaniac wife in years--"She's harder to get into than the British Museum," he contends--orders Geraldine to strip for a physical examination, though not before learning that her stepmother has died. "An explosion," Geraldine recalls, "due to a faulty gas main, killed her outright and took the roof off the house."

He: "Have you applied for compensation?"

She: "Just for the roof."

The explosion also blew up a statue of Sir Winston Churchill, which figures later in the play. She: "Parts of the great man were actually found embedded in my stepmother." Prentice sympathizes: "You've had a unique experience. It's not everyone who has their stepmother assassinated by the North Thames Gas Board."

Orton, an aphorist on a par with Oscar Wilde, takes no prisoners with his witticisms. The verbal ferocity never flags. Yet in Friday's opening-night performance, the SCR cast directed by Tim Vasen kept stepping on their lines with a rat-a-tat-tat delivery that buried their brilliance throughout the first act.

Things picked up in the second act, though, allowing us to fully relish Richard Doyle's comic talent. His portrait of Prentice has a master's touch. It gives his colleagues a benchmark to shoot for when they settle more comfortably into their roles.

Bill Cohen already has as Sgt. Match, the befuddled police officer in search of the bellhop who has tried to rape Mrs. Prentice in a linen closet of the Station Hotel; and David Fenner as the bellhop sometimes gets a priceless look of winsome daffiness on his face reminiscent of Stan Laurel.

But Joan Stuart Morris, though she's game and looks drop-dead perfect for Mrs. Prentice, as well as being a fine actor, still has a way to go to catch the madcap spirit of the role.

John-David Keller, playing the psychotic Dr. Rance, didn't step on his lines. He just kept muffing them, as if he'd caught the hiccups. Carla Harting's Geraldine is likable enough, but needs an injection of personality.

Technically, the show measures up to SCR's usual high standard. The clinic has a swank suburban look, costumes just right. And the incidental music--the Kinks and the Beatles--gives us the taste of 1967, when Orton's play takes place.


* "What the Butler Saw," South Coast Repertory Second Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends May 24. $26-$41. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Richard Doyle: Dr. Prentice

Carla Harting: Geraldine Barclay

Joan Stuart Morris: Mrs. Prentice

David Fenner: Nicholas Beckett

John-David Keller: Dr. Rance

Bill Cohen: Sgt. Match

A South Coast Repertory production of a play by Joe Orton. Director Tim Vasen. Scenic and costume design Michael Vaughn Sims. Lighting Jane Reisman. Sound B.C. Keller. Wigs Carol F. Doran. Vocal and dialect consultant Lynn Watson. Production manager Jeff Gifford. Stage manager Kristin Ahlgren.

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