Joe Orton’s truly ultimate work, “What the Butler Saw,” now at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, was penned in the mid-’60s. Now, 50 years later, with a show like “Mad Men” celebrating the era of Midcentury Modern, the time is equally ripe for the return of Orton’s mordant commentary on madness.
Imagine if Benny Hill and Monte Python had mounted their own production of a “Hamlet”-esque drama, substituting sex for death. Orton’s work more than stands up to the scrutiny of the LED of the 21st century and, in the hands of Paul Mullins and his amazing ensemble, we take a roller coaster ride through the fun house of febrile brains.
This quick and ready ensemble cast is rapid-fire, so make sure to keep up–the wit is razor sharp and keen, so you may see the blood before you realize you’ve been cut. The antic physical comedy is pure delight and, in the hands of such experienced actors, you’ll spend a great evening and many others to come thinking about this madcap show that is still ahead of its time.
Dr. Prentice (Peter Simon Hilton) is interviewing for a new secretary. The candidate in question is Ms. Geraldine Barclay (Allison Layman), who is clueless innocence to the louche intent of our randy doctor, who happens to run a mental institution. When Prentice asks her to strip so he may check her fitness for a secretarial job, she shruggingly complies. Doctors know what they’re doing, right?! We soon learn that the maddest are leading the mad.
Mrs. Prentice (Vanessa Morosco) is an avowed Wiccan, perhaps bisexual capital P “Presence,” who swills Haig Gold like it’s iced tea, though she’s a lady–never more than one finger at a time. When she breezes in, Hurricane Irma could learn a thing or two. It’s difficult to say which of the Prentices is dafter, until we meet Doctor Rance (John Hutton), who at first seems like he might have the one shred of sanity of all of them, though soon we see the tatters that it’s in.
Nicholas Beckett (Robbie Simpson) is a bellhop at a hotel of infamous repute, which has a larger role to play than it originally appears. We get to see quite a bit of Nicholas, sometimes more than intended, and it will make for a classic British night of theatre, as we get to see half the cast en déshabillé. The estimable Jeffrey M. Bender renders the one semi-sane character, Sergeant Watch, in brilliantly subtle fashion, gradually building into participation in the pervasive miasma of madness that the other characters give off like fumes from an onion. Orton’s title refers to an Edwardian peep show that often included erotic pictures, so our public look at private sexuality makes for an interesting evening of theatre, especially when the soupçon of madness makes it more like real life.
Both revolutionary and reviling, in its time, for its undisguised attacks on government and propriety, the play has moved in the past 50 years from people walking out tearing up programs to people making reservations to enjoy an outstanding evening of unflinching humor in theatre. Make your plans today before time runs out.
Ready for the madness of lies and the sexiness of the insane?! This experience would make a superb gift for the Autumn Birthdays in your life. The final show is on October 1, so get your tickets NOW at www.shakespearenj.org