Comic playwright Joe Orton wrote with an agenda, and he didn’t try to hide it. As a gay man who’d been marginalized by British laws and the medical profession’s attitudes toward homosexuality in the 1950s and ’60s, he strove to use his brief superstardom in the London and New York theater worlds to make this claim: Everyone’s a freak, so stop persecuting those who have the courage to admit it.
Although Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloane were the plays that brought him his greatest success, his final script, What the Butler Saw (1969), is his clearest and most aggressive testament against the sexual hypocrisy of mainstream society. In its current high-energy revival directed by Jim Covault, Stage West offers a (literally) stripped-down, unapologetic take on Orton’s raucous celebration of the joys of deviancy. Even Winston Churchill’s penis makes a patriotic if snarky appearance, though to say much more on that subject would be to spoil one of the play’s most devilishly irreverent moments.
Most sex farces take a little time early in the show to establish their characters’ social pretensions, the better to knock them down later. But Orton was eager to let the humiliation begin at once, so What the Butler Saw doesn’t have a setup or a traditional plot per se. It’s more a series of short, accelerating scenes that allow the playwright to fire insults at all manner of established authority.
Set in a London psychiatric hospital, the play opens in the consulting room of amorous Dr. Prentice (Patrick Bynane) as he interviews a young woman named Geraldine (Katherine Bourne) for the position of secretary. We immediately learn that Dr. Prentice will attempt to bed any young woman he finds attractive, so in short order the psychiatrist has tricked Geraldine into undressing behind a curtain to “examine” her. They are interrupted by Mrs. Prentice (Dana Schultes), a cynical and sexually frigid woman who is being blackmailed by a bisexual hotel bellhop named Nicholas (Garret Storms) –– he has taken compromising photos of her in a bedroom situation that didn’t quite pan out, which doesn’t surprise Dr. Prentice, who says his wife is “harder to get into than the reading room at the British Museum.”
Nicholas, in turn, is being hunted by the inept Sgt. Match (Dwight Greene), who wants to arrest the young man for his indiscretions with underage schoolgirls. A meddling government hospital inspector named Dr. Rance (Jerry Russell) eagerly invades the whole fracas, diagnosing everyone’s sexual neuroses for a research book he believes will cement his professional reputation and make him rich from its parade of shocking peccadilloes.
The frenetic action in What the Butler Saw makes even less sense than most sex farces, but Orton’s observations against a corrupt status quo and for tolerance of sexual outsiders are so well-phrased, you don’t really mind that his characters become quickly and easily confused just for the sake of complicating situations. Alcohol and sedatives are liberally dispensed in this show, and when Nicholas and Geraldine wind up wearing each other’s clothes, they are mistaken for entirely new characters by some of the others. As Sgt. Match sagely puts it: “If you’re baffled by the difference [between boys and girls], it’s best to approach both with caution.”
Under the direction of Covault, the Stage West cast soars on sheer enthusiasm and well-oiled timing, even if the British accents tend to be all over the map and not all of the physical shtick works as well as it might. The younger actors in this veteran cast prove particularly charming and resourceful. Storms gets a lot of mileage out of his fast-talking delivery and his coy, gangly drag presence; the ingénue Bourne takes a mostly reactive supporting role and turns it into a study of how to find energy and inspiration in a constantly beleaguered character.
What the Butler Saw is more intriguing than many creaky British sex comedies from the ’60s because of the script’s generous, almost activist tone. You can feel Orton really campaigning for the idea that there is no such thing as “sexually normal” or, at the very least, that such a standard is elusive and often cruelly enforced by doctors, the law, and middle-class society. Stage West fully understands why this show is still relevant and flies Orton’s freak flag with appropriate glee. Any play that deploys Winston Churchill’s dick toward the goal of a more democratic society deserves a periodic revisit.
What the Butler Saw
Thru Aug 5 at Stage West,
821 W Vickery Blvd, FW.