What the Butler Saw
“Laughter is serious business, and comedy a weapon more dangerous than tragedy,” playwright Joe Orton said. Orton loved farce, and his final play, What the Butler Saw, is a “bent” British sex farce with an agenda.
The set forecasts what’s to come: multiple doors, with a sofa in the middle. It’s perfect for this kind of comedy. Right away, we meet a young woman who strips to her underwear. But as Orton works the formula, he also takes a serious lunge at conventional British society—the class system, academia, the law and even Sir Winston Churchill.
Naturally, the play was born in the 1960s. Orton was a working-class lad who became the bad boy (and darling) of British theater. His scripts were studded with one-liners and deft social observations, prompting comparisons to Oscar Wilde. Orton was likewise gay and promiscuous, furthering the resemblance.
In What the Butler Saw, authority figures go bonkers, gender is inverted, spouses deceive each other and underlings blackmail superiors. Respectability is merely a cloak for getting more of what you want, and just about everything’s for sale, if the price is right.
It continues the B Street Theatre’s recent foray into farce. Last summer, the theater staged Sam Shepard’s national-security satire The God of Hell. It drew some complaints because it was clearly aimed at the policies of our president (though he was never named). Last fall brought Kira Obolensky’s Lune, Pronounced Loony—a failed farce, in our opinion. Now we have What the Butler Saw. It’s just as pointed as God of Hell, but perhaps being both British and nearly 40 years old puts it at a safe distance.
Director Jerry Montoya and the well-chosen cast (Greg Alexander, Saffron Henke, Peter Story, et al.) have the timing down and execute slickly throughout. Doors pop open, couples are surprised in compromising positions, women scream right on cue. What’s more, the thread that ties this wild story together is sustained without slowing the forward momentum.
One last thing: Orton died in ’67 at the hands of a jealous male lover—nine blows to the skull. The opening music in this production is an instrumental bit from the Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” The irony probably would have amused the playwright.