Swine before pearls

What the Butler Saw

By Joe Orton
Directed by Scott Shattuck
Jean Cocteau Repertory Co.
Bouwerie Lane Theatre
330 The Bowery (677-0060)
Non-union production (closes Oct. 25)
Review by John Chatterton

To understand the initial response of the English to Orton's work means placing the work in context. In 1967, memories of the Blitz and the little people of England standing up to Hitler were still fresh. And the English, though they have made Hyde Park's Speaker's Corner (where anyone can get up on a soap box) a landmark of free speech, have a feudalistic devotion to authority more appropriate to their German cousins.

So dropping a play like What the Butler Saw into the cultural millpond of the English mind must have been like ... well, firing V2s at London. It starts with Dr. Prentice (played with cynical lack of affect by Joseph J. Menino), a country-sanitarium psychiatrist, trying to get a new secretary to undress for him. Unexpected entrances by his nymphomaniac wife (a sophisticated Elise Stone), an overblown, obsessed medical inspector (Craig Smith), an oversexed bellhop (Kennedy Brown), and a dim police sergeant (Christopher Black) make hiding one from another (they seem to come undressed as spontaneously as pouring a drink) a nightmare of logistics.

As a sex farce, the play perfectly manages all these details. But Orton leaves Feydeau behind by extending his satire from the medical establishment as far afield as Churchill's penis. And, by making them incidental and matter-of-fact, trivializing rape, incest, alcoholism, homosexuality, and wife-beating. Where the premise of farce is that a healthy sex drive lowers all to the same level, Orton assumes a universal aptitude for what most viewers (who end up feeling like voyeurs) consider perverse.

And then he has the gall to round up his little cannibal tribe, Shawlike, with the Renaissance device of siblings separated at birth and identified by two matching halves of a broken locket. (That the father tried to seduce the girl, and the boy raped the mother, and the children are the spawn of a casual rape, is treated as sentimental dessert.) This is not the politically correct fare demanded by most New York audiences.

Strong stuff, and no wonder some stuffier-looking members of the audience stretched their limbs at intermission and didn't return, or that the laughter took on a tone more sniggering than raucous. (It's a bit of a reach for a repertory company with a reputation for the classics to stoop to that lowest exponent of British low-brow TV, Benny Hill.)

As expected, the company invested the evening with a fine sense of purpose, as borne out by beautiful lighting (Giles Hogya), a stylishly spare set (Patrick Heydenburg), carefully designed costumes (Susan Soetaert), and true ensemble acting. Director Shattuck worked especially hard on such gimmicks as carefully timed imitative gestures.

That all this effort didn't ignite the audience might be as much a condemnation of the audience as of the production. It was not clear that anything more could have been done. Raising the energy level or playing more broadly might just have coarsened the effect, to no good end.

The Bouwerie Lane isn't big enough for all the effects, notably the ending, in which the characters put on their clothes and escape the now-locked-up sanitarium by climbing up a rope ladder. But perhaps, to find its true audience, the play should be declassified as a classic and moved to the West Village, where is found an audience better attuned to what seems like Orton's inspiration -- the lewd humor of the English music hall.

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 2
Acting 2
Set 2
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 2
Copyright 1996 John Chatterton

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