Vol. 1 No. 4 2008



BEYOND BOOKS: Theater


Of Farce and Pretense
Seduction With a Touch of the Absurd


WHAT THE BUTLER SAW

By Joe Orton


Directed By David Wheeler


Reviewed By James Petcoff


WELLFLEET HARBOR ACTORS STUDIO:
JULIE HARRIS STAGE
CAST:
Dr. Prentice: Michael Balcanoff
Geraldine Barclay: Lordan Napoli
Mrs. Prentice: Meg Gibson
Nicholas Beckett: Lewis Wheeler
Sergeant Match: Adam Harrington
Dr. Rance: Richard McElvain

What we saw at WHAT’s production of “What The Butler Saw,” at The Julie Harris Stage this summer started a bit off kilter. It took a good ten minutes for the cast to fully inhabit their British accents and to coordinate the manic rhythm of the dialogue, but once these obstacles were overcome, the cast led us into a ripping good two hours of theatrical British farce. Playwright Joe Orton’s gleeful and sadistically humorous take on the mores and hypocrisy of the British, in particular, and psychotherapy, in general, had the audience laughing and squirming uncomfortably in their seats.

Michael Banlcanoff, as Dr. Prentice, gave a lecherous performance as one who will use the position of his high office to seduce the young woman who has come to his hospital seeking employment as his secretary. On the pretense of giving the young lady a physical exam, he persuades her to undress behind a closed curtain on an examination gurney. It is while he waits for her to undress that the planned seduction goes totally haywire due to the appearance of characters as comically absurd and morally bankrupt as he.

Lordan Napoli gives Geraldine Barclay, the young woman applying for the secretarial position, a fresh-faced innocence punctuated by deer-in-the-headlights incredulity as she recognizes Dr. Prentice’s lascivious advances for what they are. Even though she will be shuttled about, drugged and manhandled throughout the play, she will remain the plucky English Rose, maintaining a core of dignity that totally eludes the others whose lies, self delusions and absurd pontifications reveal them for what they are.

As Geraldine throws her underwear over the curtain to Dr. Prentice, in walks Mrs. Prentice; fresh from a dalliance with the bell hop from the hotel where she stayed on the previous night. As played by Meg Gibson, she wobbles around on too-high heels and shakes her tushie in a manner reminiscent of Katey Sagals’ Peg Bundy from Married With Children, – her Trans-Atlantic cousin? And so begins the innuendos, lies, psycho babble and cross dressing that will keep us laughing at the misconceptions this cast of characters’ impose upon one another.

Enter Nicholas Beckett, hotel page in page boy livery, carrying a box containing compromising photos taken the night before during his tryst with Mrs. Prentice. Lewis D. Wheeler gives a cagey performance as a randy grifter without pretense or moral compass until he loses his clothes.

Into the bubbling cauldron walks Dr. Rance. As played by Richard McElvain, we are introduced to a pompous government bureaucrat sent to inspect the hospital. Discovering Geraldine behind the curtain, he queries Dr. Prentice as to whether she is a patient, and Dr. Prentice replies that she is. Thus, Miss Barclay goes from being a naked prospective secretary to being a naked mental patient in Dr. Prentice’s hospital.

Finally, the law arrives in the person of Sergeant Match. Adam Harrington gives this character a stalwart Dudley do-right persona that he manages to keep even after being drugged, cross-dressed and shot. He will keep the stiff upper lip even when dressed in Mrs. Prentices’ leopard print dress and blond wig.

Underlying the farce and comedy is a dark undercurrent of how ethically ambivalent people abuse positions of power in government and the medical profession.

Playwright Joe Orton comes from a long line of British playwrights using farce and comedy to expose the hypocrisy of their political and social institutions, in the tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan and Noel Coward. Because of his early death at 34, we will never know the plays he could have written. We can, however, appreciate the legacy that he has left us.

Director David Wheeler, no stranger to directing works of farcical satire such as David Mamet’s American Buffalo, David Rabe’s Cosmologies and Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, keeps the pace brisk with the characters always off guard as they race in and out of the consulting room, into each other and through the sky light. Has anyone seen Groucho Marx?

James Petcoff is a Cape Cod resident, writer, musician and the director of Cove Club, a mental health rehabilitation program in Harwichport, MA.

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