‘What the Butler Saw
By Joe Orton
Through Oct. 1
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
36 Madison Ave., Madison
By GWEN OREL
MADISON- Watching the characters declare the oddest things as if they are normal, in Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw,” is a bit like looking at a photograph with a colored filter over it. In these days of Instagram we all know what that means — the figures are recognizable and we know what we are looking at, but it’s just … off.
Fortunately it’s also amusing, even more so once we get our bearings.
If the style reminds you of “A Hard Day’s Night” or “Monty Python,” you’re right. Orton, who was murdered at the age of 34, in 1967, by his lover, had even been tapped to write a screenplay for the Fab Four, titled “Up Against It.” (That screenplay was never filmed.)
Like those British comedies, “What the Butler Saw” pokes fun at British institutions, mocks the burdensome legacy of World War II, and showcases sexual frivolity.
Orton’s farce takes place in a private lunatic asylum, where Dr. Prentice (Peter Simon Hilton) is interviewing young Geraldine Barclay (Allison Layman) for a secretarial job.
There’s no butler anywhere: the title is a joke about voyeurism.
When Geraldine explains that she’s the product of an assault in a hotel, he takes a big book down from a shelf to check the information on the hotel: so far, so Wildean.
Nearly every single word out of Prentice’s mouth is bizarre, but taken in stride, including the fact that his wife is at a long meeting of her coven.
He asks the pretty blonde secretary to undress, under the guise of examining her medically.
Of course, it’s just what it looks like, and when the wife (Vanessa Morosco) — who was, indeed, at a coven meeting — appears, he hides the girl and tries to stuff her stockings into a vase. His wife lacks a dress, because the bellboy Nicholas
Beckett (Robbie Simpson) took it. When Dr. Prentice punts and says the dress lying in his office is one of hers, she puts it on.
From there on it’s a classic sex farce. More or less.
Dr. Rance (John Hutton), a bureaucrat come to do an inspection, takes Geraldine to be a patient, which results in her having her hair chopped short, which helps when she dresses in Beckett’s uniform…
By Act II, when Dr. Prentice, Geraldine and Beckett are really the straight men trying desperately to fool Dr. Rance and Mrs. Prentice, the play brilliantly jells. When a disgruntled bobby, Sergeant Match (Jeffrey M. Bender) comes in, the send-up of British types is complete.
At one point that bobby’s helmet is used to shield a private part of a naked man. At one point, as a drunken, gun-shooting
Mrs. Prentice observes, naked men are running around everywhere.
As people switch clothes to fool Rance and Mrs. Prentice, there are jokes about gender, mistaken identities, transvestism, even incest.
The farce feels weirdly fresh.
Montclair’s Rick Sordelet, as action coordinator, staged the fight scenes, which morph seamlessly into director Paul Mullins’ comical, compromising tableaux.
As fur-wearing, Scotch-drinking, nymphomaniac Mrs. Prentice (her husband says she’ll be sent to the grave in a Y-shaped coffin), Morosco glitters perfectly. She’s all angles, all twitches, all plummy voice.
Layman’s sweet blonde Geraldine seems snatched right from a British sitcom, and she even rolls her eyes with naive good will. As Rance, Hutton is a wonder: balding, with heavy glasses, he looks like a distinguished political commentator on CNN. He’s so avuncular, and so nuts: “Ruin follows the accusation, not the vice.”
As hapless Dr. Prentice, Hilton reveals imagination and heart. Brittany Vasta’s curved, pale blue ’60s psychiatric ward is gorgeous, and Kristin Isola’s costumes include shift dresses that go from woman to boy to woman and back again. The hair is also period-perfect: Emilia Martin gets credit for the evocative wigs.
Watching people answer any old thing to avoid getting caught never gets old, and neither do Orton’s odd jokes.