When Joe Orton wrote What the Butler Saw in the late 1960s, sexual repression, the gender wars, and psychiatry were hot entrees on the banquet table of social controversy. (Back then, Orton's own homosexuality registered as a mental pathology.) So he set his farce in an institution for the insane, and loaded it up with enough lust and misunderstanding to convincingly indict his times. What this show represents today, though, is a bit of a mystery—and a challenge for the Burning House Group.
The action opens in the office of Dr. Prentice (Matt Guidry), who has just inaugurated a job interview with prospective secretary Geraldine (Sara Richardson). The doctor, after a few slugs of scotch to fortify his courage, persuades the lovely girl to strip off her clothes and lie down on a pink sofa bed he keeps behind a surgical curtain for just these occasions. Things are looking shagtastic for Prentice until his wife (Carolyn Pool) arrives unexpectedly early.
Guidry, with a lip-hugging moustache and criminally violet cravat, is unctuous from the start. He alternates between a heavy-lidded torpor and the wide-eyed gaze of a man looking for whatever opportunity presents itself amid a failing marriage. We're soon informed that the missus is a nymphomaniac: At one point Prentice tells his spouse: "You were born with your legs apart. They'll send you to the grave in a Y-shaped coffin." As a result, she is in the process of being blackmailed by a young man (Erik Hoover) with whom she shared a sexual adventure the night before.
Director David Allen Baker Jr. pitches this stuff pretty much like a randy episode of Fawlty Towers; there's plenty of sex talk, but the real business is men and women in various states of perusal, evasion, and marital bickering. Orton throws a crucial new element into the script with the arrival of Dr. Rance (Randal Berger), a government official who has come to document that things are on the level at the institution.
Naturally, things aren't. Prentice, desperate to hide his attempted seduction of Geraldine, follows the bombastic Rance's demand to have the girl committed. (Richardson's big eyes get stuck comically agog as her character tries and fails to explain herself.) Mrs. Prentice's suitor (Erik Hoover) appears in his hotel porter outfit, followed soon by a policeman (Joel Liestman) looking to arrest him for another dalliance (this one with a number of young schoolgirls. Their headmistress, whom he neglected to service, turned him in to the cops).
From here on out it's all slamming doors, men disguised as women and vice-versa, a tremendous amount of boozing, and some unintentional drug use. You get a sense of Orton laughing and rubbing his hands together as these generally unlikable characters churn and spin amid their own lies, resentments, venality, and grandiosity.
Berger, stamping his feet, shouting, and brandishing an oddly paralyzed arm, gives a performance utterly devoid of subtlety. It seems a fine way to play his character—a man who is utterly worthless at understanding anything around him yet envisions fame and fortune from writing a book about the imagined perversions in his midst. Pool is positively frightening, her lips thrust out, her character coming to life in a black slip, aroused only after being slapped around.
Orton's ending is cynical beyond belief, a repudiation of any dramatic concept of emotional payoff, and Pool brilliantly sells it with an exclamation to her newfound twin children (don't ask) that comes off like the most sincere thing anyone has said onstage all night. I can't proclaim that this is an evening without tedium—the machinations of this farce start to grind a little—but the Burning House Group keeps turning the crank with energy. It's also a chance to see the play that Orton himself never enjoyed, having been murdered by his lover before it opened. Social mores may change, but love is timeless in its knack for irony.