Those who like Oscar Wilde filtered through Franz Kafka should make a beeline for the Hampstead Theater revival of “What the Butler Saw,” the Joe Orton comedy that — nearly 40 years after its posthumous premiere — seems scarcely less cruel than it is funny. David Grindley’s production is unevenly cast and drearily designed, without the Magritte-like spark previous stagings have brought to it, but it’s hard to resist any play with the following exchange: “I am a heterosexual,” one authority figure announces defiantly to another, who replies, “I wish you wouldn’t use these Chaucerian words.”
Show is poised to transfer Aug. 24 to the Criterion for a nine-week West End run, where its lack of star power may be more apparent. (One can think of various luminaries who would shine in the role of the gun-happy nymphomaniacal wife, Mrs. Prentice, in which Belinda Lang is barely adequate.) But at the Hampstead, Orton’s anarchic sense of theatrical possibility is the true star, alongside his thoroughgoing knowledge of the dramatic canon that echoes numerous forebears even as it reinvents them.
Had he lived beyond 1969, Orton would have had scant time for political correctness, and it’s astounding just how much of the play still rattles the sabers of propriety today. Within the sorts of confines Feydeau would have loved (four doors allowing for, in one unverified reckoning, 149 entrances and exits), Orton manages to explain away rape — “He can’t wait for everything,” goes the play’s rationale — mental and physical abuse and the murderous tendencies of the North Thames gas board, all in the name of a society that, per Orton, posed its own ever-tightening straitjacket.
Indeed, it’s fascinating just how often one hears the playwright’s singular plea for tolerance poking through. “My private life is my own,” bleats Jonathan Coy’s deliciously harassed Dr. Prentice. “Society must not be too harsh in its judgments.” Fair enough, coming from a psychiatrist who by play’s end will have embraced transvestitism, bisexuality and possibly necrophilia as Orton’s farcical roundelay accelerates toward its explosively priapic, uh, climax.
It’s as if Orton were literally undressing “The Importance of Being Earnest” even as he anatomized Wilde’s structure, which is here revised to incorporate sedation, gunshots and delusions on a grand scale — grand and grimly funny, too.
At its best, the production imparts the utmost seriousness necessary to deliver up so lunatic a scenario, which begins with the arrival at Prentice’s office of shorthand typist Miss Barclay (a sweet turn from Joanna Page), whose perpetual cheer soon gives way as she is made to realize the madhouse into which she has innocently walked.
An emissary from the Friendly Faces Employment Agency, Miss Barclay is the barely clothed pivot of an intensifying frenzy that includes the Prentices, man and wife; the stern-faced Dr. Rance (Malcolm Sinclair); a cross-dressing policeman (Huw Higginson); and a horny pageboy who has traded in stamp collecting for rampant womanizing. (In that last role, tentative newcomer Geoff Breton seems a social class or two too elevated to play a quintessentially Ortonesque bit of rough.)
Dr. Rance is the play’s defining (and best) role, and it’s no surprise that Sinclair is a minor sensation in the part, alternately purring and barking his lines with a gravitas that is only amplified as his world falls to bits around him. Looking as if his glasses are weighing him down, thesp cuts a white-jacketed, silver-haired embodiment of rectitude as its most ridiculous, though you, too, might be delusional if you had to stare too long at Jonathan Fensom’s drab, all too period-perfect 1960s-style set.
Professing that he once put an entire family — his own! — into a communal straitjacket, Sinclair’s Rance blazes a shrewd path through shenanigans that you’ll either find hilarious or you won’t. It’s possible to tire of an outlook from Orton that seems to repudiate an awful lot and celebrate very little, but when Sinclair is spitting blood on behalf of the very establishment Orton regarded as the enemy, the actor’s timing itself is cause for that same celebration his playwright only found in outrage.