Review of What the Butler Saw

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.

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 from her coven meeting 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 transvestitisms, 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 in agony.

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-1960s 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 and 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 twenty years, or trawled YouTube for ten minutes. ‘Nuff said.

The night I saw the show, there was a rather awkward “period of adjustment” as the audience got used to the rampant sex-talk, but after that, things really started to roll. By the end, we had all been won over. The show is paced so well, that even the few slow moments come more as welcome chances to catch one’s breath than as let-downs, and the whole thing is over before you know it.         

Ron Bashford, who over the last several years has become N.C. Stage’s de facto 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 (also directed by Bashford for N.C. Stage) is as formidable as ever, though she plays “Mrs. Prentice” with a kind of abandon that alerts one to unsuspected capacities. 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 side-splittingly hilarious acting I’ve ever seen on the boards at N.C. Stage — or anywhere, for that matter. 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 suppose that’s what it means to be a professional.

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 him with gratitude from last year’s A Number (also directed by Bashford), 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 (one can’t help but wonder), 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 I have trouble seeing the point of, 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.

What the Butler Saw, by Joe Orton. Directed by Ron Bashford for North Carolina Stage Company. Featuring: Matthew Burke, Charlie Flynn-McIver, Casey Morris, Rebecca Morris, Graham Smith, Vivian Smith. Stage Manager: Connie Silver. Lighting Design: Jenn Trippe. Sound Design: Jason Waggoner. Set Design: Ron Bashford. Property Design: Jessica Tandy Kammerud. Costume Design: Jill Perkins. Performances Wednesdays through Sundays, through Sunday, June 6, 7:30 pm (2 p.m. Sundays), at N.C. Stage, 15 Stage Lane, Downtown Asheville. Tickets: $16 – $26, depending on day. Reservations: (828) 239-0263.


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7 thoughts on “Review of What the Butler Saw

  1. Tiger Lilly

    Agreed. This doesn’t feel at all like one of those that tries to tell the theater-makers what they should have done differently (or even to say it was done “right”).

    One thing to encourage: more discussion of visuals.

  2. Ron Bashford

    For those of you who may not know this, the show has been extended a week (through June 6). There are still tix available.

  3. Ron Bashford

    I just came across this. Theatre Goer, I was pleased with the work of everyone on What The Butler Saw, stand for my work and hoped everyone that wanted to go knew of the additional opportunity to see the show. It’s not like I get a percentage of the ticket sales or anything like that. Freelance directors in the non-profit arena generally are paid a flat fee.

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