In his book on farce, Albert Bermel tells us that what defines farce is “to scoff in public at whatever the neighbors’ cherish in private.” To put it in a broader cliché, one person’s tragedy is another one’s comedy. Farce, in short, is not merely comical, but positively brutal in its skewering of all things sacred — or things deemed sacred, even if not really so.
No farce is funnier or more vicious than Martin McDonagh’s blood-soaked The Lieutenant of Inishmore or more gruesome and hilarious than his A Skull in Connemara. At least so far. But McDonagh’s predecessor at this game, the late Joe Orton, comes very close and had less time to whittle away at his barbs. What these playwrights share is a common notoriety for vulgarity and deliberate offence, and both can lay claim to similar backgrounds: each is the scion of impoverished working-class parents from across the pond who each had/have everything to gain by insulting the stiff-upper-lipped professional classes whose self-righteousness and condescension they utterly despise/d.
Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot, were both previously staged at the Mark Taper Forum some decades back by John Tillinger, who has returned to direct the production of Orton’s What the Butler Saw now on view at the Taper. Butler was Orton’s last play, written just before he was bludgeoned to death in a pique of jealous fury by Kenneth Halliwell, his partner of 16 years, in a murder-suicide. It might have served as another grisly farcical plot had the incident not been so tragically real. Orton was only 34 years old.
What the Butler Saw took on the psychiatric profession at the height of its popularity among the upper middle classes. But this broadside is too clever by half and ends up drowning in its own plot.
Oh, it starts out reasonably enough when Dr. Prentice (Charles Shaughnessy), a psychiatrist in a private mental institution, is interviewing a potential new secretary, Geraldine Barclay (a sweet Sarah Manton). When he orders her to disrobe so he can examine her, she considers it an odd request. Being a good little girl, however, she follows his instructions. And we’re ready for takeoff — literally and figuratively.
Enter, at this most inconvenient moment, the unexpected Mrs. Prentice (the excellent Frances Barber). It seems the Mrs. has been doing her share of dallying at the Station Hotel with a tall, good-looking bellboy named Nicholas Beckett (the hilariously lanky young Angus McEwan). She is here, paramour in tow, to ask her husband to employ him as his new secretary, because, at a crucial moment in their newly minted relationship, she promised the lucky fellow that she would.
These events are complicated by the unplanned arrival of a Dr. Rance (the unflappable Paxton Whitehead), government inspector of this certified loony bin who proceeds to take charge by looking into every nook and cranny as the dominoes begin to fall…
As if the plot were not thick enough by now, we also have an intruding police sergeant (the robustly dense Rod McLachlan) in search of the culprit who made off with Winston Churchill’s private parts, vandalized from a statue of the eminent Prime Minister (sculpted in his naked state, was he?).
The two primary dangers with a farce whose outline is as free-ranging as this one is that (1) it will become so complicated and over the top that (2) it will be impossible to resolve it in a satisfying manner.
Both things occur in What the Butler Saw and only the poor playwright is to blame. Or rather the partner who killed him. Since Orton died before having the opportunity to make revisions, we’re stuck with a second act filled with slamming doors, cross-dressing characters, a couple of straightjackets landing on the wrong people, a great deal of imbibing (whiskey), a swath of dialogue that tries to make the irrational rational, and plot twists tighter than a ten-inch corkscrew.
The actors are all delicious, especially Barber and McEwan, and the ever unperturbed Whitehead, whose perpetually serious and superior demeanor perpetually enchants, even when Tillinger’s direction falters here and there. As Dr. Rance might say, lunacy is democratic and an equal opportunity attacker. If you’re going to lose your mind, this is the right place to do it. But a certain urgency in the requisite pace of that insanity goes missing here, especially in the second act, and the play just gets sillier and sillier as it rumbles — and eventually crumbles — to its desperate conclusion.
It would be good to be able to say that it all works in the end, but that would be a lie. Given the chance, it’s a safe bet that Orton would have fixed what is now a wildly overwrought and sloppy Act Two. It even resorts, tongue in cheek, to the overused Shakespearean fallback of twins (and their mother) recognizing one another thanks to each being in possession of one half of an artifact given to them by her at birth. It is not an especially fresh or convincing resolution, and neither is the characters’ reaction to their sudden discovery that they are all — incest be damned — related. The news seems to come as a relief that, hey, the play is over. And, hey, it is FARCE, remember?
British humor does not always ring bells with American audiences. At the performance I attended, some seats were left empty after intermission. The play needs the rewriting that it did not get. Frenzy is part of comedy, certainly, and while this may sound like a contradiction, that frenzy also should be clearer, shorter and, in this case, sharper in its execution than it is.
WHAT: What the Butler Saw
WHERE: Mark Taper Forum, Music Center, 135 North Grand Avenue, Los Angeles 90012.
WHEN: Tuesday-Fridays, 8pm; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8pm: Sundays 1and 6:30pm. Ends Dec. 21
HOW: Tickets $25-$70 (prices subject to change), available online @ centertheatregroup.org, or by phone @ 213.628.2772, or at the Mark Taper box-office.
Top image: (l-r) Frances Barber, Angus McEwan and Paxton Whitehead in WHAT THE BUTLER SAW
All photos by Craig Schwartz