Think of the most randy, unorthodox (2 hour long) episode of Three’s Company, combine it with the most circuitous of Seinfelds, couple that with the most glued together Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta endings, run it through the most dry-witted, Noel Cowardly of British mixers, and you’ve got Mark Taper Forum’s What the Butler Saw. Penned by the illustrious Joe Orton at the height of the sexual revolution, the entire play takes place on one hectic morning in a single room of a private clinic (wherein many a private will inevitably be displayed) attached to the home a dashing, middle-aged psychoanalyst Dr. Prentice, (Charles Shaughnessy) our licentious lead character.
Prentice commences his daily duties by interviewing a young Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton) sent over by the “Friendly Faces Employment Agency” for a possible position as his new secretary. Arrestingly adamant on knowing all her personal details in as intimate a fashion as possible, Dr. Prentice will balk when Miss Barclay declares, “I have no idea who my father was,” by countering, “I’d better be frank Miss Barclay. I can’t employ you if you’re in any way miraculous.”
While non-miraculous by any immaculate stretch of the imagination–her conception conversely sullied by an unspeakable act of the past–Miss Barclay may very well turn out to be miraculous in a completely alternate light in keeping with the fortuitous fate of the ever-fervent physician. Until Dr. Prentice is made aware of this, he can only insist on a full examination to declare her fitness for the job by prompting her behind the curtained couch and convey what the audience will eventually come to recognize as the play’s prime catch phrases, “Take your clothes off.” Upon Ms. Barclay’s initial suspicion regarding the request and query as to whether or not he will “touch” her, Dr. Prentice can only assure, “I’ll wear rubber gloves.”—or at the very least a rubber something (we should hope) should he ever get that far-sheesh!
Enter Mrs. Prentice (Frances Barber) whom, despite an insatiable, seemingly years’ long bout of marital discord, Dr. Prentice is intent upon hiding his lecherous leanings. Not that it should matter as she herself has only spent the previous night at the Station Hotel, an establishment lightly defamed throughout the course of our story, for those without much of a station in life themselves, and as a place where “uniforms are optional”, not to mention the spot where Miss Barclay herself was questionably conceived.
Bell Hop Nicholas Beckett (Angus McEwan), and the object of Mrs. Prentice’s cougar-like antics from the previous night, will follow from the same place of ill-repute, sporting a very smashing uniform despite any and all aforementioned references to the contrary—but not for long. It is he who possesses some compromising photos of the good doctor’s wife and it is she who then promises Beckett a position as her husband’s secretary if he will make no one, least of all her husband, aware of any and all inferred images!
Enter Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead) fellow psychoanalyst and inspector for the Government. From here on out, Miss Barclay is dubbed “the insane patient behind the curtain”. Her dress having been long commandeered by Mrs. Prentice (after her own naked night of ill-repute, along with her own accusations, hurled husband-ward of her own life partner’s foray into “transvestitism”)Barclay is an involuntary captive in her own supposed zany reality TV show! “Is it the Candid Camera then?” she will utter as she is carted out of the room, at Rance’s behest for a presumed lobotomy.
Sergeant Match (Rod McLachlan) will invariably stop by in search of young Bell Hop Beckett regarding his previous night’s indiscretions, but he will no longer be much of a “he” as he has already been dressed in a leopard print frock to escape all notice—save any randily, confused young men or cougars in the form of Mrs. Prentice.
From the surprise government inspection, to police involvement, to an elaborate attempt to hide the two young objects of cuckolded interest from the other spouse (while they hide from each other in opposite sexed clothing) to drugging the officer to oblivion on happy pills in order to dress the boy in his clothes so he won’t be arrested, to the drugged-out British Bobby in the unzipped, ill-fitting leopard print ladies’ dress –much too slight for his frame–formerly worn by the bell hop, (the the much sought after privates of a recently “blowed-up” statue of Winston Churchill—don’t ask) you can see why Mrs. Prentice might stop and implore, “Give me something Doctor! The world is full of naked men flying all directions!!!”
And there you have your basic energy and frenetic kinesthetic vigor that embody Mark Taper Forum’s production of What the Butler Saw!
From beginning to end, this highly energetic production, directed most meticulously by John Tillinger, is choreographed seamlessly and succinctly, and all gestures punctuating the pointed, deliciously dry deliveries by each actor keep the play flowing in all humanistic, machine-like precision.
Acting is crisp, precise, superb, and impeccably comedically timed. From Dr. Prentice aka Charles Shaughnessy’s perfectly commanding, ill-command of the entire situation at hand, to Sarah Manton’s sympathetically innocent, yet sage registration of any and all circumstances as Miss Barclay; (“All your troubles spring from a lack of candor,” she will invariably exclaim Dr. Prentice-ward.) to Frances Barber’s/Mrs. Prentice’s sultry, husky-voiced, deliciously mellow dramatic sexual tenacity –yet confusion–at every occurrence to transpire within the last 24 hours, to Angus McEwan as bell hop Nicholas Beckett (as the closest thing to a butler to ever alight the stage), in all his shamelessly shameful fervor, showing his—well *butt* and then some (not that he has anything to be ashamed about on that end or any other) to Paxton Whitehead’s deliciously dryer-than-dry-ice-in-the-desert portrayal of Dr. Rance, to Rod McLachlan as the bumbling, yet bombastic, ham-handed Sergeant Match, this is a most richly refined cast to be reckoned with!
Sets by James Noone and costumes (the leopard print ladies frock in particular) by Laurie Churba Kohn only add to the multi-colored madness!!!
All that aside and title notwithstanding, I think it is only pertinent to cite; no Butler will ever alight the stage, and it would appear (after a brief google search/and/or unless I learned the reason in college and have, hence, forgotten) there is no motive given as to why this is. Are we, the audience, the Butler—metaphorically speaking? Is the Butler supposed to be the butt of all jokes as one who’s posterior has not been included in this piece despite its namesake? Or is the butler some silently god-like observer catering unto humanity (perhaps even under the guise of the writer); i.e. he who has not only known all and seen all but is now shown all? Or perhaps the butler signifies a peeping tom in symbolic form of the audience integrating all previously speculated notions above.
What the Butler Saw runs at The Mark Taper Forum until December 21st.
For tickets and information, please visit: doggedness