Reviewed by Barbara & Scott Siegel
Presented by The New Group at The Theater at St. Clement's Church, 423 W. 46 St., NYC, Nov. 12-Dec. 10.
A doctor in a mental institution asks an applicant for a secretary's job to take off her clothes. The naïve young thing reluctantly agrees. The doctor has every intention of defiling the innocent girl—and the scene is played for laughs. If written today, sexual harassment charges would be the first thing on the playwright's mind. And the audience would likely be thinking the same thing. In 1969, however, when Joe Orton wrote that first scene for "What the Butler Saw," he got his laughs. It was the opening gambit in a satiric farce in which marriage, medical practice, and sanity, itself, were held up to ridicule.
"What the Butler Saw" has traditionally been directed at breakneck speed. The characters and situations in the work are writ large and the more eccentric and nutty the production, the funnier it generally plays. The bite of the material (and the tooth marks are substantial) comes from characters who willfully ignore facts that stare them straight in the face. In The New Group's current revival of the play, however, director Scott Elliott has taken a chancy—and darker—approach. Slowing the action down, Elliott grounds the characters in a reality that they heretofore have never possessed. As a consequence, instead of treating its subjects to a madly wild send-up, the play becomes a far more subversive work.
The play largely succeeds because Dylan Baker is a comic marvel as Dr. Prentice, the loveable lecher who sets the play in motion and keeps it spinning. He manages to be dryly funny by doing less rather than more. Lisa Emery does too much to little effect as Mrs. Prentice, the doctor's nymphomaniac wife. The rest of the cast, however, is first rate, including Chloë Sevigny. She makes the impossible role of the young secretary who inexplicably strips somehow credible. Peter Frechette is Dr. Rance, the biggest fruitcake in the asylum and, naturally, the man in charge; his performance is deliciously sly. Much like Scott Elliott's daring direction. "What the Butler Saw" isn't as funny as it often is, but it's a good deal more satisfying.