The insane are clearly running the asylum in the manically funny “What the Butler Saw,” which will be at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison through Oct. 1.
The play was the last one completed by Joe Orton before his 1967 death, at the age of 34. It’s a rare play that still seems wildly irreverent a half-century after its creation, but this is one of them, especially with director Paul Mullins helping to complement Orton’s witticisms with lots of physical comedy, and the entire cast exhibiting sharp comic timing.
Dr. Prentice (played by Peter Simon Hilton), a psychiatrist who runs his own clinic, seems perfectly capable and professional — until he asks Geraldine (Allison Layman), who is interviewing for a secretarial job, to take off her clothes, so he can examine her. She’s skeptical but still complies. Dr. Prentice’s unsavory plans are interrupted, though, by the arrival of his Mrs. Prentice (Vanessa Morosco), who has just had an affair with a bellboy, Nicholas (Robbie Simpson). Nicholas is blackmailing her, and she wants to pay him off by securing the secretarial job for him.
Prentice hides the semi-clad Geraldine behind a curtain, but things are further complicated by the arrival of Dr. Rance (John Hutton), making a surprise inspection of Dr. Prentice’s clinic for the government.
“I represent Her Majesty’s Government. Your immediate superiors in madness,” he says.
Dr. Rance, symbolizing Freudianism run amok, sees deviance everywhere. If someone says something innocent and sensible, it just means that they are covering up some deranged tendency. And he’s got an answer for everything.
At one point, Dr. Prentice points out to him that one of his theories doesn’t, in fact, make any sense. Dr. Rance replies with a line that has added significance in our current era of fake news.
“That need not cause us undue anxiety,” he says. “Civilizations have been founded and maintained on theories which refused to obey facts.”
The arrival of a policeman, Sgt. Match (Jeffrey M. Bender), does nothing to slow the mounting chaos. He’s dull and ineffectual, and easily manipulated by just about everyone else.
Geraldine, the play’s most sympathetic character, disguises herself as a man, and gets declared insane. Nicholas and Sgt. Match disguise themselves as women. Doors are slammed, straitjackets are donned, and the surprise ending nods to classic farce convention in a deliciously absurd way.
There are certain things that don’t make any sense, even within the confines of farce. Sgt. Match is so dense it’s hard to believe he even managed to find his way to the clinic. Nicholas goes to desperate extremes, for no real reason, to keep his disguise a secret.
But in a sense, none of this matter. For it’s the intent of Orton — who wrote this play in the middle of the most culturally tumultuous decade of the 20th century — to depict a world spinning out of control. And the more ridiculous, the better.
A critic once described one of Orton’s other plays as “Oscar Wilde crossed with Monty Python.” I think the phrase fits “What the Butler Saw,” too. And certainly, anyone intrigued by that description should not miss this production.
“What the Butler Saw” is at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison through Oct. 1. Visit shakespearenj.com.