Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

What the Butler Saw
Westport Country Playhouse
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Fred's review of Broadway Bounty Hunter


Paxton Whitehead, Sarah Manton, and Robert Stanton
Photo by Carol Rosegg
What the Butler Saw, at Westport Country Playhouse through September 10th, combines a biting version of farce with British humor. The first expository hour might garner a number of laughs, but in the second and shorter act, zany comedy rules and it becomes wildly improbable to resist. Period piece music such as "Do You Love Me?" and "Satisfaction," as in "I can't get no," is very audibly heard throughout the theater before the production begins. The play was written by the talented Joe Orton.

Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton) hopes to get a job as a secretary in a psychiatric clinic. Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton) is not too subtle with his wish that she remove her clothing. He will determine if she is a fine applicant for the job. Prentice and his wife, played by Patricia Kalember, are not, shall we say, doing well together. Mrs. Prentice (a drinker), though, has had a fling or something herself with bellhop Nicholas Beckett (Chris Gharrari), but she fears he will blackmail her.

Enter actor Paxton Whitehead as Dr. Rance, supervisor to Dr. Prentice. Whitehead has been cast in this role in at least one another production and he dominates each of his scenes. The actor holds fast to the character, a man who pretty much gets things wrong. Moreover, Rance seeks to elevate his own fame and, possibly, fortune. Sergeant Match (Julian Gamble) is increasingly outrageous as the plot evolves. John Tillinger has directed

What the Butler Saw at other locales and he zips this presentation along with dizzying (a compliment) results. Each of his actors is in top form.

Here's a sampling of just what is or might be satirized: psychiatry, marriage, gender definition, and traditional roles—and, more philosophically, who is mad, who is sane, and who makes that determination (Answer: the audience). As What the Butler Saw speeds to its conclusion, everyone on stage becomes subject to parody. If anything, the action accelerates. The script is filled with bold, visual comedy even through some serious import: The Prentice marriage is a sham and the profession of psychiatry takes palpable hits. Orton, who was murdered before reaching his 35th birthday, was a clever writer and the absurdly wild second act includes farce's requisite slamming of doors. Various individuals, too, are cross-dressing.

This play appears to be juxtaposing the absurdist against that which is far more serious. Dr. Rance comes on the scene with the purpose of examining just what goes on in within this psychiatric facility (which is precisely designed by James Noone). A senior physician, Rance cannot get anything right. Paxton Whitehead's discipline is enviable and, playing stereotypical British to the extreme, he never overacts. Yet he speaks reams with his eyes.

A large number of theatergoers at Westport Country Playhouse at a recent Sunday matinee reacted with boisterous laughter the moment Dr. Prentice asked Geraldine Barclay to strip down and sit on a medical couch behind a curtain. The audience eruption might have been a tad premature. Later, Sergeant Match, trying to find portions of a statue of Winston Churchill subject to vandalism, becomes a laugh riot himself. It is difficult to watch Julian Gamble, as Match, without breaking into a smile.

It is difficult to fully know Orton's intention with this play. Clearly, he is making a statement about the value of psychoanalysis. What the Butler Saw, by implication, tells us that the playwright probably viewed Brits as sexually repressed.

Some might find this play demeaning to women. That is probably so. Still, Geraldine is one of the few characters who has smarts. It is also insulting to others, especially the psychiatrists and the searching policeman. Tillinger, to his credit, lends organization and structure to the potential chaos. Thus, the WCP rendering is specific and detailed. It never flies away from form and purpose. Beyond the obvious hilarity, this story offers some insight.

What the Butler Saw continues at Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, Connecticut through September 10th, 2016. For tickets, call (203) 227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.


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