Whodunit to the New Group’s revival of Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw” is the question, and the prime suspect would appear to be Scott Elliott. As both New Group’s artistic director and director of this dismal production, Elliott is clearly the man with the smoking gun. Handcuffs, please.
Orton’s last play is his masterpiece, a bawdy farce and satire of social proprieties that ranks among the best comedies of the century. But you wouldn’t know it from this miscast and flat-footed production, which only grinds fitfully into gear in the latter going, as the foolproof door-slamming antics take over from the more sophisticated linguistic humor.
The venue itself is problematic: the giddy brilliance of Orton’s dialogue is not well served by the cavernous acoustics of the Theater at St. Clement’s. The unforgiving space adds a small but leaden echo to each line. That obstacle might easily be overcome by a cast well drilled in the proper Ortonian manner, but Elliott’s cast is mostly at sea here.
Dylan Baker is nearly acceptable as Dr. Prentice, the lecherous proprietor of the mental institution in which the play takes place. The eyes have the proper predatory leer, but Baker, like the rest of the cast, does not give the dialogue the elocutionary sparkle needed to unleash its delightful absurdity. The great thrust of Orton’s humor derives from the contrast between the arch, almost Wildean formality of his characters’ speech and the perversity and vulgarity of its meanings. When it’s just slopped around like standard one-liners, the laughs evaporate pretty quickly.
Chloe Sevigny, Oscar nominee and doyenne of the fashion pages, looks delectable in her blue eye shadow, ’60s wig and girlish frock. But by the time she’s unclothed — some 10 minutes into the first act — it’s clear she’s incapable of supplying the dazed oomph necessary to her character, the aspiring secretary who ends up in a straitjacket. She tries hard to master the accent and the syntax, but the effort shows.
Also laboring away is Peter Frechette, a talented actor seen to better effect in Richard Greenberg’s “Hurrah at Last.” He is far too wan as the ferocious bureaucrat Dr. Rance, the double-talking representative of social order who brings chaos to the institution in his charge. Rounding out the lineup are Lisa Emery, too clipped and subdued as the randy Mrs. Prentice; Karl Geary, too bland as the randy cockney bellhop; and Max Baker, barely noticeable as the bobbie who ends up drugged in a dress. A key quality of intensity is missing from the performance and the production as a whole, which features a serviceable set by Derek McLane and fine costumes by Mattie Ullrich.
When the play descends into a maelstrom of gunshots, ringing alarms and unclothed men staggering from door to door, the forceful comic prerogatives of farce finally take hold, but the payoff is hardly commensurate with the effort being visibly expended. In any case, no amount of pleasingly surreal slapstick will make up to Orton fans for the alarming travesty of the prior two hours.