Sending up our sexual hypocrisies

If the recent news of ecological catastrophe in the Gulf, or (closer to home) vandalism and hate crimes in Our Fair City have got you feeling a little down, take my advice: Give N.C. Stage a buzz and reserve a ticket for What the Butler Saw, the near-perfect farce by British playwright Joe Orton currently running at the little theatre on Stage Lane.

An explosive mixture: Juicy bits of physical comedy and a painfully funny and convoluted ride define the current comedy at N.C. Stage. Photo by Jen Lepkowski.

The show is an immensely entertaining send-up, not just of the modern psychiatric profession, but of the sexual mores and sexual hypocrisies of the 20th century. It's an explosive mixture of Shakespearean cross-dressing and subversive wit worthy of Oscar Wilde.

The play begins as Geraldine Barkley, a sweet and (surprise, surprise) ravishing young woman is being interviewed for a secretarial job with a private psychiatric practice. Her potential boss, Dr. Prentice, seizes the opportunity to attempt to seduce her. He's not especially gifted in this regard, but the immediate proximity of a fair-sized couch makes the idea seem at least plausible.

Things begin to go seriously awry, however, when Mrs. Prentice returns early and catches — or, since it's a farce, very nearly catches — her husband in flagrante. From there, the plot careens into a preposterous shell game with copious transvestite-isms, mistaken identities, lies and mendacities, metaphysical shenanigans, megalomanias, strait jackets, high heels, tumblers of booze downed like cola, and enough entrances and exits to make a stage manager scream. A willing (or willful) suspension of disbelief is necessary throughout, and nowhere more so than in the final scene, which is about the most ridiculous resolution I've ever witnessed on stage. And all of it with neither hide nor hair of a butler or butler-like personage. Strange but true.

And now, a word of caution: The play is indeed "adult," as the press material claims, but in a late '60s British sort of way. We get an eyeful of attractive and under-dressed young bodies scampering around, and a more or less relentless earful of sexual innuendo, but not a single f-bomb — or any other generation of bomb, for that matter. Except of course the two "bombshells" of the cast: Vivian Smith and Rebecca Morris, who spend a fair amount of their stage time in their underwear. It's hard to imagine who would really object to this.

But, if the play seems at all shocking or scandalous now, it does so only by virtue of its obvious and naive desire to scandalize. To intend scandal these days, you would have still to believe in the quaint idea of moral propriety; and then I wonder if you've watched prime-time television in the last 20 years. 

Ron Bashford, who over the last several years has become N.C. Stage's first-string director, is at his best with this material. It's clear he and the cast had a fabulous time putting this show together, discovering its juicy bits of physical comedy, and going on its painfully funny and convoluted ride.

Charlie Flynn-McIver is delightful as Dr. Prentice, and as I watched him dig himself ever deeper into his own private hell, I found myself breaking out in a sympathetic sweat. As Miss Barkley, Rebecca Morris has the grace and wisdom to play it straight, and her charm is impossible to resist. Vivian Smith, whom audiences will remember from Dead Man's Cell Phone, is as formidable as ever, though she plays Mrs. Prentice with abandon. The same goes for Casey Morris, the youngest member of the cast, who struggles a bit with the British dialect, but plays "Nicholas Beckett," a prematurely debauched bell boy, with a compelling mixture of innocence and vulgarity. 

But as Dr. Rance, a government inspector of sorts, Graham Smith delivers some of the best and most hilarious acting I've ever seen anywhere. It boggles the mind to think (as I was told at the show) that the man just came off an extended run of King Lear, in which he played the title role. I couldn't take my eyes off him: Every moment was a revelation of ridiculousness, even down to the tiniest physical quirk. N.C. Stage audiences will remember Smith from last year's A Number, but here he is simply brilliant. If the rest of the cast, with the possible exception of Flynn-McIver, can't quite match him, that's not really their fault. He obviously connected with the role and with the play on a profound level — perhaps in part because he was alive during the time when it was written. Or maybe it's because, for an older actor, having played Lear means you can face any role with Olympian calm.             

As for the playwright, Joe Orton, it's too bad the program does no more than name him. He had a fascinating life, and his death was premature and strange. An openly gay man in England in the 1950s and 1960s, Orton challenged the persecution of homosexuals in British society, and did much to encourage other artists to examine the hypocrisies and injustices of the dominant culture. Unfortunately, it seems he was also, in his youth, a vandal of library books, a crime that seems difficult to understand, and for which he was briefly imprisoned. Years later, in 1967, his career had just begun to take off when he was murdered; he never saw What the Butler Saw, which premiered in 1969.

But you can, and should.

In addition to teaching, acting, producing and dancing with wild abandon at wedding receptions, John Crutchfield reviews theatre for Sightlines, the Xpress theatre project. Join the discussion at www.mountainx.com/theatre.

who: N.C. Stage Company
what: Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw
where: N.C. Stage, 15 Stage Lane (across from Zambra)
when: Extended an extra week, through June 6 ($16 to $26. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Sundays at 2 p.m. www.ncstage.org or 239-0263.)

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