The late great Joe Orton wrote three of 20th Century England’s most outrageously funny, audacious, and sexually provocative screwball farces, though you’d hardly know it from the misguided revival of 1969’s What The Butler Saw now playing at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre under Ben Lupejkis’ direction.
Not that Orton makes it easy on a director and cast. It takes a deft hand and considerable flair to take a play 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 … and make it work
Unfortunately, there is little evidence of directorial flair at the Morgan-Wixson. Staging that ought to be fast and furious isn’t, and Lupejkis’ cast, despite their best efforts, seem on as many different pages as there are actors onstage. Its almost as if each actor directed him or herself.
•Dr. Prentice (Phillip Apoian), 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 (Maria Pavone), 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 (Emily McLeod), 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 (Frank Weidner), 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 (Harold Dershimer), 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 (Drew Fitzsimmons), a policeman baffled by all of the above
Problems plaguing the above cast members include overplaying, underplaying, mugging for laughs rather than allowing the laughs to come from the script, inserting unfunny physical shtick not in Orton’s script, and/or insufficient command of lines. Not everyone is ideally cast. All could have done much better with a firmer, surer, clearer directorial hand.
Production design, while competent, could also have benefited from greater panache, be it Laura Levin’s set, Richard Pothoff’s lighting, Patricia Butler’s costumes, or Shawn Summerer’s sound design. A hair designer would have helped at least one character as well.
I’ve seen three absolutely terrific productions of What The Butler Saw. Regretfully, I should have left it at three.
Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica.
May 4, 2013
Photos: Marc Ostroff