What the butler sees here is the fragility of farce. Frantic tomfoolery represents the most delicate style of stage comedy, going flat in a hurry unless directed and played with exquisitely precise timing and attitude.

What the butler sees here is the fragility of farce. Frantic tomfoolery represents the most delicate style of stage comedy, going flat in a hurry unless directed and played with exquisitely precise timing and attitude.

Trickier still are Joe Orton’s works, because the outrageously iconoclastic playwright satirized the form even as he employed it to lethal effect in “Loot, “”Entertaining Mr. Sloane” and this one, the three major plays of his tragically abbreviated career.

Michael Greif has made a game try to resharpen Orton’s 1967 stiletto for a ‘ 90s audience, but many of his jabs are off-target or dull. One surefire sign of an erratic performance is the kind of spotty and pocketed laughter that emanated from the opening-night audience.

Orton aimed to poke wicked fun at virtually everything the British hold dear, and this play’s title exemplifies his puckishness. He wanted it to sound like one of those tiresome English romps where everyone zips around in various shades of undress nattering about sex but indulging in very little of it. And Orton uses that format as a frame for his splattered portrait of society.

In this script, however, there is no butler; more of the jokes come from words than actions (or they should if the play’s done right); and the overall wildness spoofs much more than British prissiness about sex.

The plot, to use the term loosely, spins from a psychologist’s attempt to seduce a nubile applicant for the job as his secretary. He gets thwarted by the appearance of his boozing, nymphomaniacal wife, followed in opportunistic order by the hotel bellboy who was the wife’s latest partner, the government overseer of all mental institutions–which, by the man’s definition, includes nearly any assemblage–and a hapless cop seeking missing evidence.

All pop in and out regularly through the clinic’s many doors, with abundant panicky behavior, much cross-dressing, quick nudity, scattered gunshots and considerable gore, and some final ribaldry concerning the recovery of a key missing part from an exploded statue of Winston Churchill. The ending flies right out of Charles Dickens by way of Oscar Wilde.

Orton’s script is devilishly clever, but it necessitates rattling off some twisting lines while carrying on frenetically. And no one in the cast succeeded completely.

Nor did they have the timing right. Too often action was paused for a laugh that didn’t come. Or one joke came too quickly on the heels of another, getting lost in the laughter.

Greif, aware that quips about topics like homosexuality, pederasty, incest and transvestitism don’t have the shock value they did in the ’60s, has added lots of visuals to amuse and startle. They, too, have elusive benefits. The government official, amid one of his rants, swings back and forth on some hanging stirrups, apparently as a manifestation of his growing madness. And the wife shows up with hands dripping blood, allowing her to do a skewed Lady Macbeth.

As the bibulous, randy wife, Kate Mulgrew connects on a higher percentage of her lines than do the others. And Don Harvey does more with the bellboy part than usual. Max Wright, however, creates a pretty bloodless psychologist, and Bill Raymond makes the domineering bureaucrat much too overwrought much too soon , adding to his line miscues. Joel Brooks, the bobby, and Kellie Waymire, the job-seeker, do OK, even in the awkward underwear scenes.

John Arnone’s set provides everything a director could want for a clinic of crazies, including a running shower, a sitz bath tub and a clock that whirls around its single hand. Looming above is a wall festooned with large colorful sketches of British icons.

David S. Thayer’s lighting serves well and dramatically aids a climactic red-bathed alarm scene, while Janice Benning’s costumes are true to 1967. Likewise, Jeff Ladman’s sound, featuring some aptly chosen tunes from that decade’s British rock invasion.

What the Butler Saw

Mandell Weiss Forum, La Jolla; 384 seats; $29.75 top

Production

A two-act comedy by Joe Orton produced by La Jolla Playhouse. Director, Michael Greif.

Creative

Scenic design, John Arnone; costume design, Janice Benning; lighting,: David S. Thayer; sound, Jeff Ladman. Reviewed July 26, 1992. Runs through Aug. 30, 1992.

Cast

Dr. Prentice - Max Wright
Geraldine Barclay - Kellie Waymire
Mrs. Prentice - Kate Mulgrew
Nicholas Beckett - Don Harvey
Dr. Rance - Bill Raymond
Sgt. Match - Joel Brooks
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