What the Butler Saw, Noble Fool Theater Company. Thirty-five years after it was written (and after its author was murdered by his unstable boyfriend), Joe Orton’s comedy remains one of the funniest plays in the English language. It starts with a routine farce premise: psychiatrist Dr. Prentice attempts to conceal a sexual indiscretion from both his wife and an official of Her Majesty’s government, Prentice’s “immediate superiors in madness.” From this setup Orton unleashes a whirlwind of non sequiturs, paradoxes, and absurdities, offering a scathing critique of foolishness and hypocrisy in high places. The result is loony humor worthy of Lewis Carroll or Gilbert and Sullivan, only far more risque.
First produced in 1969, What the Butler Saw revels in bisexuality, incest, and transvestism–once taboo topics now standard fodder for sitcoms and talk shows. But Orton’s antic imagination and exuberant pleasure in unorthodox sexuality continue to delight; viewers who would once have been shocked by the script now laugh in agreement with Orton’s view of society as a madhouse.
Director Don Ilko’s cast are more comfortable with Orton’s physical humor than his verbal wit, which is too often obscured by mannered deliveries. (Patrick Carton as Prentice is all tics and fidgets, utterly lacking the deadpan daftness the role requires.) Far more successful than the first act is the second, a barrage of sight gags involving people running around in underwear, their own and each other’s. Overall the result is an imperfect but acceptable rendition of a comic classic.