Here’s a quick quiz for theater aficionados:

Who can name a screwball comedy which deals with, features, or mentions all of the following: depravity, disguises, gender identity, the government, hanky-panky, hermaphroditism, homosexuality, incest, insanity, marriage, mistaken identities, nymphomania, pederasty, psychiatry, rape, religion, reunited orphan siblings, slapstick, and transvestitism?

For those out there who might be stumped, the answer is What The Butler Saw, the infamous and inimitable Joe Orton’s 1969 screwball sex farce, now being revived at the Odyssey Theater—and hilariously so—under the oh-so imaginative direction of Alan Patrick Kenny.

Like Orton’s earlier Entertaining Mr. Sloan (1964) and Loot (1965), What The Butler Saw provoked shock, outrage, and even boos when first produced, and even today, over forty years after Orton’s untimely murder (by his longtime lover), this delectibly spicy black comedy continues to induce both laughter and gasps, though far more the former than the latter, times having thankfully changed.

What The Butler Saw stars the following cast of zanies:


•Dr. Prentice (John Walcutt), head of a Mental Health Clinic whose purpose “isn’t to cure, but to liberate and exploit madness,” and who, by the play’s end, has been accused of being a transvestite, fetishist, bisexual murderer.
•Mrs. Prentice (Melinda Parrett), the good doctor’s promiscuous wife. “You were born with your legs apart,” the doctor tells her. “They’ll send you to the grave in a Y-shaped coffin.”
•Geraldine Barclay (Amanda Troop), a fresh young thing sent by the Friendly Faces Employment Bureau to apply for the position of secretary at Dr. Prentice’s clinic. Geraldine can take shorthand at a remarkable 20 words a minute, but she hasn’t yet mastered the typewriter keyboard.
•Nicholas Beckett (Ciaran Joyce), a pageboy at the Station Hotel who engages in sexual intercourse with hotel guests for the purposes of blackmail, most recently with one of the above.
•Dr. Rance (Geoffrey Wade), a Government inspector whose visit to Dr. Prentice’s clinic convinces him that “We’ve phallic worship under our noses, or I’m a Dutchman.”
•Sergeant Match (Jerry Della Salla), a policeman baffled by all of the above


Like any screwball farce worth its money, What The Butler Saw features fast-paced dialog, countless entrances, exits, crossed and uncrossed paths, mistaken identities, and last minute surprise twists. In addition, by the end of the production, most of the cast has either cross-dressed, worn someone else’s clothes and/or a straitjacket, or appeared in their undies—and who can complain about that?

And how about these snippets for some outrageously funny (and infinitely quotable) dialog?

Dr. Prentice: Kindly remove your stockings. I wish to see what effect your stepmother’s death had upon your legs.

Mrs. Prentice: You put me in an impossible position.
Nick: No position is impossible when you’re young and healthy.

Dr. Rance: Is your couch regulation size? It looks big enough for two.
Dr. Prentice: I do double consultations.

Can anyone think of a contemporary playwright who can shock, amuse, and titillate in equal measure?

Director Kenny knows well that to have a successful farce, its staging must be fast and furious, and performed by a cast possessing flair, razor-sharp timing, and total commitment to the author’s intentions. Kenny’s staging is precisely what the doctor ordered, the entire Odyssey Theatre cast giving memorably over-the-top performances.

Walcutt delivers even the most outrageous of Dr. Prentice’s lines with such aplomb that it’s no wonder Geraldine obeys his orders to remove her stockings because “I wish to see what effect your stepmother’s death has had on your legs.” Troop plays the object of his undressing with a delicious combination of wide-eyed innocence, naïve eagerness, and abject confusion. Parrett couldn’t be more fabulous as the dryly sophisticated and thoroughly nymphomaniacal Mrs. Prentice—think Joan Collins, Julie Andrews, and Helen Mirren all rolled into one. Wales native Joyce is an utter delight as the sexually eager Nick, whether in pageboy uniform, zipper-flied briefs, or a satin gown and pearls. As Dr. Rance, the extraordinarily versatile Wade hands out instantaneous and detailed diagnoses completely un-based in fact with an absolute confidence made dubious by the tics and twitches that seize his head and neck when least expected. Della Salla delivers plenty of laughs the daffy Sergeant Match, particularly when drugged.

Scenic designer Ellen Lenbergs has created a spacious consulting room with a curtained double bed that literally appears out of nowhere, the better for Dr. Prentice to examine his disrobed patients. The Freud bust that doubles as an ice bucket atop a cabinet filled with whisky bottles (from which Dr. and Mrs. Prentice refill their drinks nonstop) is a standout bit of set decoration by prop designer Katherine S. Huntt. Bosco Flanagan’s lighting design and John Thompson’s sound design are indeed ingenious, and no more so than when director Kenny turns up the soap suds in the play’s final, pseudo-dramatic scenes. Mylette Nora’s 1960s costumes are a terrific bunch, from a dress than manages to fit both the petite Troop and the more statuesque Parrett to that zippered fly, whose accidental malfunction at the performance reviewed here inspired some hilarious adlibbing. Jennifer Lin’s original music does much to heighten both slapstick comedy and comedic soap suds. Doug Oliphant’s fight choreography makes for some realistically administered, yet comedic, slaps.  Jennifer Palumbo is stage manager, Christopher Adams-Cohen assistant director, Taylor Moten wardrobe supervisor, and Peter Simpson Cook graphic designer.

There are doubtless some amongst the Odyssey Theatre’s post-retirement subscriber base for whom Joe Orton’s brand of comedy will “cross the line of decency” (to quote a certain Mrs. Edna Welthorpe of Orton’s day)—and more power to them. Not so this reviewer, who laughed long and hard throughout What The Butler Saw’s two hours of nonstop wacky, twisted absurdity.

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
January 25, 2012
Photos: Enci, Ron Sossi

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