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What the Butler Saw by Elyse Sommer

Surely we're all mad people, and they
Whom we think are, are not --
-- The Revengers Tragedy,
Anonymous, 1607
Peter Frechette, Chloë Sevigny, Dylan Baker
Peter Frechette, Chloë Sevigny, Dylan Baker
(Photo: Carol Rosegg )
British playwrights Sarah Kane and Joe Orton both died prematurely, Kane a recent suicide at 28 and Orton a murder victim at 36. One of Kane's five plays, Crave, and Orton's last, What the Butler Saw, are both currently running Off-Broadway. They have little in common, Kane's play being a lyrical, nonlinear work and Orton's a farce. What's ironic is that Kane killed herself while in a mental institution, which is the setting and chief target of Orton's farce.

Sad as it is to contemplate that both Kane and Orton died so early in their careers, it's heartening to report that Orton's sendup of the mental health profession along with stabs at government, religion, literary aspiration, heterosexuality and homosexuality holds up very well. The undressing, cross-dressing and sexual innuendoes may no longer shock in these days of Jerry Springer, Ophra, et al, but the dialogue continues to pop out at you fast, furiously and funny.

The New Group's artistic director, Scott Elliott, has mounted a revival that captures the spirit of Orton's carefully convoluted plot and is true to the script and it's stage directions -- including a speech often omitted from the end of act one and a skimpy leopard print dress that is at one point or another donned by a hapless would be secretary, a horny Cockney bell boy and a London Bobbie. Since even the best farce is only as good as the timing of the farceurs entrusted to sail in and out of its traditional four doors, Elliott has made sure that his comic ship won't capsize by assembling a crew of farceurs up to the script's verbal as well as physical demands.

Heading the cast we have Dylan Baker as Dr. Prentice, the respectable head of a psychiatric clinic with a not so respectable bent for seduction. Baker's face is like a series of sketches for a portrait. The preliminary sketch depicts dead pan seriousness with barely concealed lust. Later sketches show increasing outrage as a seduction interruptus of a wide-eyed would-be secretary transforms his office into the center of a storm of confusion, accusations and mistaken identities.

Chloë Sevigny, as the Geraldine Barclay, is wide-eyed innocence personified. If Prentice needs to see her undressed to judge her secretarial qualifications, so be it. She remains comically wide-eyed even when her cooperating with his unorthodox interview techniques lands her in a straightjacket and with her hair shorn.

Lisa Emery as Mrs. Prentice comes close to stealing the show as she pops in and out of the office while the good doctor tries to hide evidence of his failed indiscretion from her. The perfectly coifed and manicured lady isn't as respectable as she looks. Seems she's been a rather willing victim of rape herself (by a hotel bellboy), and her fondness for sex is matched only by her fondness for gin. Emery's pause-gasp reactions are as priceless as the events to which she is reacting are outrageous -- e.g. the "rapist" bellboy's demands that she secure him a job in her husband's offic and her husband's apparent penchant for women's clothes.

Peter Frechette is outstandingly obtuse as Dr. Prentice's nemesis, Dr. Rance. This take charge bureaucrat turns confusion into chaos and becomes certain that the people at the Prentice clinic are his open sesame to literary fame. Frechette also ably delivers some of Orton's impossibly lengthy speeches.

The dueling docs and Geraldine and Mrs. Prentice are joined by Karl Geary as the bellhop and Max Baker as police sergeant in the escalating zaniness, careening through the four doors provided by Derek McLane within a nanosecond of bumping into each other. All stick to their British accents with admirable consistency.

If farce which leans heavily towards slapstick isn't your cup of theatrical tea, there are the particular epigrammatic pleasure of this one. I leave you with a few examples:

Mrs. Prentice: I hardly ever have sexual intercourse
Dr. Prentice: You were born with your legs apart. They'll send you to the grave in a Y-shaped coffin

Rance: . . .Civilizations have been founded and maintained on theories which refused to obey facts

Mrs. Prentice: The purpose of my husband's clinic isn't to cure, but to liberate and exploit madness. Rance: In this case he appears to succeed only too well.

Rance (on hearing that Mrs. Prentice found her husband on his knees praying): How shocking! His abnormal condition has driven him to seek refuge in religion. Always the last stitch stand of a man on the bring of disaster.

Dr. Prentice ( when his wife threatens to find a student lover in New Delhi): You can't take lovers in Asia! The air fare would be crippling.

Another Joe Orton reviewed at CurtainUp:
Nasty Little Secrets

by Joe Orton
Directed by Scott Elliott
Cast: Chloë Sevigny, Dylan Baker, Lisa Emery, Peter Frechette, Max Baker
Set Design: Derek McLane
Lighting Design: James Vermeulen
Costume Design: Mattie Ullrich
Sound Design: Ken Travis
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission
The New Group at Theatre at St. Clement's, 423 W 46th St. (9th/10th) 279-4200
Tue - Sat at 8pm; Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm
10/31/2000-12/10/2000; opening 11/12/2000

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance
The Broadway Theatre Archive


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