If ever there were a writer dedicated to society’s subversion it was Joe Orton. Orton despised the status quo and made it his mission to wreak havoc on its precepts as thoroughly and as flamboyantly as possible. In What the Butler Saw, he went after authority figures, psychoanalysis — which he regarded as a predatory evil — and the hypocritical and repressed British attitude towards sex. Back then the play shocked. There were finger-wagging critical reviews and offended patrons tore up their programs and exited the theater in droves.
Fast forward to Los Angeles 2014 and the question is: Will a play designed to rattle the sensibilities of the British establishment in 1967 have the same effect on us? Will the satire be as keen?
Of course not.
Orton’s frenetic plotting takes place in a mental health clinic. It begins with the physician in charge, Dr. Prentice (Charles Shaughnessy), plotting the seduction of a young applicant (Sarah Manton) interviewing for a job as his secretary. Having tricked the impossibly naïve girl into disrobing, he is about to pounce, when his wife (Frances Barber) — an alcoholic who screws hotel bellboys — enters the room. The zaniness that ensues — involving straitjackets, hypodermics, cross-dressed characters, drugged policeman and incestuous secrets, among other things — all stems from Prentice’s mad efforts to conceal his intended infidelity from his spouse.
Under John Tillinger’s direction, the production gleans a respectable number of laughs, but the wrenching hilarity spurred by the experience of spot-on farce is never attained. The spurts of humor mostly involve Paxton Whitehead as Dr. Rance, the supervising physician sent by the government to inspect the clinic. It’s no coincidence that Rance, the representative of officialdom and the wielder of power, is also the maddest lunatic in the asylum. Whitehead’s adept fusing of a fatuous demeanor with his character’s dangerously inane way of thinking brilliantly sums up everything Orton was trying to communicate.
Not surprisingly, the cross-dressing and some of the other antics don’t pack the same punch they did back in the day. As to the other performances, they range from capable to not terribly good. In farce, soul is as important as slapstick, and in that regard these renderings have a way to go.
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; through Dec. 21. (213) 972-4400, centertheatregroup.org.
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