Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of GableStage's current production, Joe Orton's silly, sexually provocative farce What the Butler Saw, is the cultural change that has occurred since Orton's cheeky sex farce was a scandalous coup de theatre in its 1960s premiere. Orton, a gay writer with a penchant for provocation, used the standard "naughty" farce convention and turned it into an outrageous effrontery. To the standard elements of conventional farce -- slamming doors, mistaken identities, women in underwear, and a carefully constructed plot -- Orton added subversive homosexual themes and political critique. But that was then.
Presented through January 11 by GableStage. Call 305-445-1119.
Over the years, much of Orton's ammunition has been appropriated. In today's world, there's little shock effect to referencing homosexuality, transvestitism, and incest for comedic effect. Without shock value, What the Butler Saw depends on precision. Once upon a time, it was a ticking time bomb of a play; now, it's more of a clever cuckoo clock. The danger's long gone, but it's still a carefully built piece of plot machinery.
As with most farce, the play hinges on deceptions that snowball. At a mental hospital, a lecherous psychiatrist, Prentice, seeks to seduce a lissome job applicant but is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his wife, who is herself caught up in a sexual imbroglio. Prentice manages to hide his lovely quarry behind a curtain and cajoles his wife out of the room only to be ambushed by a surprise visit by Dr. Rance, an imperious psychiatric inspector. The ensuing series of mishaps, which also include a blackmailing bellboy and a blockheaded bobby, whip all involved into a farcical frisson of lies, disguise, confusion, and more lies until much if not all is revealed by play's end.
Director Joseph Adler has assembled a fine array of acting talent, including several outstanding individual efforts. John Felix is spot-on as Dr. Prentice, the stuffy lecher whose attempts at extramarital sex play are thwarted at every turn. Felix understands the absolute essential ingredient in farcical humor: anhedonia. Prentice has a moment of pleasure, in the beginning of the show, as he anticipates bedding his comely job applicant. But after that, Prentice faces one excruciating situation after another -- panic, fear, humiliation. In this, Felix is comically expert, lurching from one desperate deception to the next. He is well-matched by Sandra Ives as his haughty wife. Ives, who has significant aesthetic and comedic gifts, plays this farce as it should be played, with a poker face, a dry wit, and exquisite timing.
Still, this production comes across as more dutiful than gleeful and somewhat less than what South Florida audiences have come to expect from GableStage. The direction is brisk, Orton's lines are delivered with precision, and the production-design support is thoroughly professional. Yet the sum of all this is somehow less than its parts. Adler has shown remarkable range, decisively nailing everything from the elegant absurdism of Edward Albee to blood-and-guts naturalism to the musical version of James Joyce's The Dead. But here, while the staging is certainly assured, it's not particularly inspired, and for a farce, there is precious little chaos. Most of the humor comes from Orton's dialogue, not the schtick, which really ought to be more complicated and clever: Cuckoo clocks need lots of bells and whistles.
H. Paul Mazer's set design clearly sets the story in shagadelic-era England with a shambling office with faded flocked wallpaper and ghastly linoleum tile flooring, but in a show with 157 entrances, the actors need to bang through the doors, adding explosive punctuation. The production also isn't helped by some miscasting and, Felix and Ives aside, some shaky English accents. Perhaps the musical score, an uninspired riff on "Rule Britannia," encapsulates the problems here: This is a go at a "British" production, instead of a specifically detailed one, a once-in-a-blue-moon shot at a particular genre. Underneath all, the problem is most likely the gulf between our cultures -- the old cliché that American actors just don't know how to play British humor and even when they do, American audiences can't quite understand it.