Joe Orton’s barbed, ribald humor has left its mark on the English-speaking theater in no small way, and so revisiting his tiny oeuvre is always a valuable exercise.
Unfortunately, A Noise Within, a troupe at ease with Shakespeare and Shaw, doesn’t quite know what to make of Orton’s bald campiness, a failing readily apparent in the company’s new production of “What the Butler Saw,” the playwright’s wicked sendup of mid-’60s psychiatry, and his most frequently performed work.
Sabin Epstein’s labored direction is chiefly to blame. He seems at pains to find the humor in this script, even though Orton provides plenty. Ideally, “Butler” ought to marry Wildean word play with broad physical comedy, but Epstein’s inexplicably expansive and quirky staging undermines both.
On Rick Ortenblad’s shabby, bland set, which only vaguely suggests a doctor’s office, Epstein has placed the furnishings so far apart, the action sometimes flags. As Orton’s characters scurry about fairly panting for breath, much of their comic timing evaporates in the process.
Like a Feydeau farce, “Butler” has more than its share of slamming doors. Yet Epstein has sapped this point by frequently employing just door frames. And what’s with the huge portrait that serves as a backdrop? At least one theatergoer thought it depicted Mstislav Rostropovich playing the cello.
As Dr. Prentice, a would-be lothario and the instigator of the play’s mayhem, Mark Bramhall is unceasingly animated, engaged in either full-fledged slapstick or more subtle physical comedy at almost every moment. His wonderfully wry tone further enhances the production. Michael Learned proves an excellent foil as his wife. In a richly suggestive performance, she distances herself considerably from the more prim roles with which she’s usually associated.
The rest of the cast charms less. William Dennis Hunt’s Dr. Rance is too earnest, Jill Hill’s Geraldine Barclay too coy, J. Todd Adams’ Nicholas Beckett too self-conscious and Richard Soto’s Sgt. Match too dull.
In a play like “Butler,” where 30 years of social change divides us from what was once shocking, it is Orton’s deft humor that continues to engage audiences. Somehow, helmer Epstein and several in his cast seem to have missed that point.