Joe Orton is one of those working-class bad-boy authors that the British middle class so enjoys being poked in the eye by. John Osborne, author of Look Back in Anger, preceded him; Martin McDonagh is a modern example. Orton's small body of work — all completed in the 1960s, when he was in his early thirties — is very different in tone and style, but like McDonagh, he's keen on the violent and macabre. In What the Butler Saw, currently showing at Germinal Stage, he marries this proclivity with anti-establishment humor, satyriasis and the conventional tropes of farce — though he uses the latter in a mocking and self-referential way. The play is fast-paced, surreal, illogically logical and cleverly constructed so that every insane act or comment comes together in some way by the end.
Dr. Prentice, a psychiatrist, sets out to seduce Geraldine, a young woman who's applied to be his secretary. The process is interrupted by Mrs. Prentice, and Geraldine, almost naked, is hustled behind a screen, whence — as we all know — her underwear and shoes will eventually fly. Mrs. Prentice has just returned from the hotel where she spent the night in the arms of a blackmailing bellhop, Nick, who promptly appears. The other characters are Dr. Rance, a bureaucrat in charge of all British institutions for the insane, and Sergeant Match, a copper. Almost everyone loses his or her clothes at some point; there's considerable cross-dressing; guns are brandished; medications are freely dispensed to both the willing and the unwilling. Much of the play's mockery of religion, psychiatry and the engines of the state — not to mention Sir Winston Churchill — has lost its power to shock modern theater-goers, but the playwright's lighthearted and lascivious treatment of rape and wife battery is very much out of tune with our times. It reminds us that Orton himself died a lurid death at the age of 34, when his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, stove in his skull with nine hammer blows and then killed himself with an overdose of Nembutal washed down by grapefruit juice.
Black farce is something Germinal Stage usually does extremely well, but when I attended this past weekend, the cast hadn't yet found its rhythm. The action was staid; some of the actors were still searching for words and perfecting bits of business. This is a difficult play to do, wedding speed and anarchy with lines that are almost Wildean in their wit and shapeliness.
What the Butler Saw
Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through July 8, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com.
Erica Sarzin-Borrillo's sharply etched Mrs. Prentice was the funniest thing in the show as she preened, posed and sashayed around the stage in her sexy black underwear. Tupper Cullum's portrait of Dr. Prentice hadn't quite jelled, but there was one moment — a triumphant bullfighter's pose when he'd finally managed to rid himself of a pesky bunch of roses that kept materializing in his hand — that promised delicious craziness to come. Ed Baierlein was perfectly cast as Dr. Rance, the dreamily demented servant of the government who interprets everything he sees according to some scheme that exists only in his head — insisting that Geraldine was once assaulted by her father, despite her angry denials, and plotting out the parameters of a book he intends to write eventually. (Books by shrinks were very popular at the time the play was written, the craze having been started by Robert Lindner's The 50-Minute Hour.) Here's an example of Rance's thinking: "As a transvestite, fetishist, bisexual murderer, Dr. Prentice displays considerable deviation overlap. We may get necrophilia, too. As a sort of bonus."
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Baierlein's relaxed style is one of his great strengths as an actor, and it should work here. In fact, I can imagine the combination of crafty malice and twisted wisdom with which he'll eventually play the part, his low-key approach providing a brilliant contrast to the hijinks of the rest of the cast. But on opening night, Baierlein still seemed to be putting the character into place, thinking about the lines, bringing his director's eye to the rest of the action.
And unfortunately, the other three actors all immolate themselves on the pyre of the required English accent. Elizabeth Parks and Mark Shonsey both have some background in improvisational theater, and they brought a sketch-comedy approach to the roles of Geraldine and Nick, with Parks attempting a bright, middle-class accent and Shonsey providing a slurry version of the sullen, lower-class speech familiar from movies about London's seamy side. But while both had their funny moments, neither really got inside the character. Thomas Borrillo had a stolid authority as the police officer, but lost it when he opened his mouth.
Orton is telling us that all of England is a madhouse, and that his characters are really no crazier than a world that the rest of us perceive as normal. I'm hoping this production finds its inner lunatic before the run is over.