Death Valet

I know the scarcity of local summer stock has gotten to me when I find myself driving to Peoria to watch one of our most amateurish amateur companies take a stab at a sophisticated British farce. Not having seen any theater at all in several weeks, I risked Theater Works' production of Joe Orton's infamous What the Butler Saw. I hoped that the fact that this usually priggish playhouse was staging a risque comedy was an indication that it was breaking out of its hyperconservative rut.

I was disappointed, if not surprised, to find Orton's tart trifle turned into a stale souffle. In this interpretation, bargain-basement acting and turgid direction overcame most of the play's funnier situations. The first real laugh didn't come until early in the second act, despite Orton's brilliant fusion of casual language and seamy sight gags. (Example: A woman squeezes into a tight dress while claiming to be chaste; her husband shouts, "You were born with your legs apart; they'll send you to your grave in a Y-shaped coffin!")

Orton, a groundbreaking British playwright, is credited with helping change the face of modern theater. He enjoyed extraordinary success on the London stage in the Sixties, with vulgar comedies like Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot. His career was cut short when, in 1967, his boyfriend (referred to in the ultraconservative Theater Works program as Orton's "roommate") bludgeoned him to death after a squabble.

What the Butler Saw was completed before Orton's death and staged a few years later. Now considered one of his most defiantly rebellious stories, this whip-sharp comedy employs a farce structure while simultaneously spoofing the genre.

Given Orton's penchant for lunacy, synopsizing an Orton play is difficult, and What the Butler Saw is especially perverse. As the curtain comes up, a young woman arrives at a psychiatrist's office seeking employment. The lecherous doctor attempts to seduce the girl and, when his wife shows up to announce that a bellhop has attempted to rape her, he hides the girl behind a curtain and her clothes in a cupboard. Another, equally horny doctor arrives, and is quickly joined by a police officer who is looking for a woman who has defaced a statue of Winston Churchill. In a little while, everyone has swapped clothes and switched identities, and Orton has plowed through social mores and made many dark pronouncements about the British establishment.

It's all beautifully written, which makes Theater Works' thick-witted staging even drearier. At the matinee I attended, bungled dialogue buried Orton's best punch lines, and many jibes that weren't plundered flew over the almost entirely blue-haired heads of its audience, who seemed more unnerved than entertained by the racy goings-on onstage. Some much-needed (though unintentional) comic relief was provided by Morris Baughman, who hadn't bothered to learn his lines at all; his trick--to repeat his line until he got it right--was fun at first. Only young Rachel Schwartz, as the unfortunate secretary, managed a worthwhile performance. Her clipped British accent was true and consistent, and she rebounded nicely from the pages of bungled dialogue swirling around her.

The production is further hindered by Matthew Carey's routinely sluggish direction. Worse, Carey approaches the play as a cheerful farce, a sunny story of mistaken identity and bent gender. But Orton's comedy is a dark indictment of middle-class morality, its humor reliant on mean jokes about Churchill's penis and bitchy asides about various perversions. Meant to be chaotic and bitter, What the Butler Saw has been recast as cute, and its happy, shiny veneer doesn't jive with Orton's brutish sniping. The whole production lacks luster and falls flat.

As hellish as witnessing all this was, enacting it had to be worse for the players, who sweated through page after page of punch lines while no one in the house so much as giggled. Still, my sympathy for the folks up on stage wasn't greater than my pity for those of us watching this mess. In the end, I felt like a man promised a very funny story, only to have it read to him in Swahili.

What the Butler Saw continues through Sunday, August 8, at Theater Works, 9850 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela