There are no household servants in Joe Orton's "What the Butler Saw," which is appropriately set in a psychiatric clinic. The title, once popular for blue movies, is a British phrase referring to the sexual delights that have long kept domestics peering through keyholes. And, boy, is there plenty to ogle at in this naughty farce.
The play turns audiences into voyeurs, and that may be why it was met with such an angry reception when it premiered in 1969, nearly two years after Orton was slain by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell. Joining in print the chorus of outraged theatergoers, Harold Hobson, esteemed drama critic of the day, described the play as "a wholly unacceptable exploitation of sexual perversion."
"What the Butler Saw" is not very likely to enrage patrons of the Mark Taper Forum, where the farce has been dusted off and redeployed by director John Tillinger, who has previously directed at the Taper Orton's "Loot" and "Entertaining Mr. Sloane."
First, this is a sure-footed revival of a British postwar classic, perhaps the most shimmering English-language farce since Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." ("What the Butler Saw" is like "Earnest" on amphetamines.)
But second, and more important, sexual mores have changed, tolerance has grown and perversion now enjoys a certain cultural cachet thanks to cable TV. And, really, what moralizer could shout "Filth!" at such a witty, epigrammatic stage play when returning home from the theater one finds posted on Facebook the apparently true story of a British woman's love affair with a dolphin?
The crisis that sets the plot in frantic motion erupts straightaway: Dr. Prentice (a smooth Charles Shaughnessy), while interviewing a prospective new secretary, Geraldine Barclay (a fetching Sarah Manton), requests that she take off her clothes and submit to a physical. This is highly improper, for not only is Dr. Prentice married but he's also a psychiatrist who has no business conducting such an exam.
Just as this questionable procedure is underway, Mrs. Prentice (a fiery Frances Barber) barges into the office wearing nothing but a fur coat and a slip. Acrimonious as ever and in a terrible jam, having just been "raped" by Nicholas Beckett (game for anything Angus McEwan), a hotel bellhop who now is blackmailing her with photographs from their vociferous escapade, she puts on the dress taken off by Miss Barclay, who is concealed behind a curtain like a frightened hare.
Upping the madcap ante, Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead) arrives from "Her Majesty's Government" ("your immediate superiors in madness") to inspect the clinic where, as Mrs. Prentice puts it, the purpose "isn't to cure, but to liberate and exploit madness."
Deranged himself with the desire to impose order, Dr. Rance promptly certifies poor, trembling Miss Barclay insane. He then orders a police sergeant (the aptly lumbering Rod McLachlan), who's hot on the trail of a protuberant body part belonging to a statue of Winston Churchill (don't ask!), to bar anyone from leaving the premises, which have suddenly become a hotbed of dangerous transvestism.
"The final chapters of my book are knitting together: incest, buggery, outrageous women and strange love-cults catering for depraved appetites," Dr. Rance announces, as though reading the playwright's dramatic outline.
This brand of farce is sometimes difficult for Americans to pull off for two reasons: It's consummately British, and its form, though modeled on classical precedent, is somewhat antique.
The veterans in this international cast lead the way, with the ferociously superb Barber, a classical actress from the U.K., giving a master class in the essential ingredients of farcical acting: sputtering anger, bald-faced hypocrisy and out-of-control lust. Deliciously amusing when rancorous, she is even more irresistibly humorous when overcome with bodily urges.
Shaughnessy and Whitehead, as the doctors at loggerheads, are perfectly adept at playing the craziness straight. The wilder their proclamations, the more they seem to be dutifully following a very fine logical thread.
When Miss Barclay beseeches Dr. Prentice to clear things up by telling the truth, he replies, "That's a thoroughly defeatist attitude!" — a line Shaughnessy delivers with the patronizing tone of a professor confronting an overwrought student.
Whitehead, an expert farceur, knows that nothing is funnier than lunatic conviction. "No madman ever accepts madness," his character says. "Only the sane do that." He is by this measure the maddest sane man in the play.
There were moments, however, when I wondered if the show could use a bit more forward thrust from the autocratic Dr. Rance. Tillinger's production moves confidently but not always fleetly.
The set by James Noone may be part of the problem. Orton winks at the bizarre office layout when he has Dr. Rance wonder, "Why are there so many doors?" But the solution Noone comes up with for the play's harrying farcical demands neither sufficiently compresses the action nor establishes a plausible theatrical cosmos.
Never at a loss, Orton's wit, following in Wilde's footsteps, relies on paradox to send up conventional morality. "You can't be a rationalist in an irrational world," says Dr. Rance. "It isn't rational" — an observation that could serve as an epigraph to Orton's collected works.
"What the Butler Saw" represents Orton at his most sophisticatedly silly. It's a play bursting with references to other plays, including even one of the greatest tragedies ever written, Euripides' "The Bacchae." Sad as it is to reflect on what this author might have gone on to accomplish had he not been cut down in his prime, the greatest tribute to his talent is that more than half a century later and far from merry old England he is still cracking up audiences.
'What the Butler Saw'
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 21.
Price: $25-$70 (ticket prices subject to change)
Info: (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours