There is no butler in What the Butler Saw, the oddly hilarious comedy that opened Saturday at Stage West.
That's a shame, because a servant might have helped tidy up some of the domestic issues that this show's wacky characters create and complicate, finally reaching a point where shots are fired and blood is shed.
And, through all this zaniness, we are left to wonder what is in that box on the desk? And will all the King's (or in this case, the Queen's) horses and all the King's men ever put Winston Churchill together again? Surely a good old-fashioned, central-casting-style British butler would have kept us ahead of the game.
If all of this sounds completely absurd, you've picked up on one of the central points of this comedy. In this 1969 work, playwright Joe Orton tried to unite the classic British sex farce with the edgy, no-holds-barred approach of absurdists like Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, which were all the rage in the 1960s.
For that reason, the strange proceedings in the psychiatric hospital that provide the appropriate setting for this madness may seem to be exaggerated beyond any acceptable level. But, once you understand how far out there this script is (and embrace its calculated quirkiness), all the action just gets funnier and funnier as it gets curiouser and curiouser. And, if all the nuttiness leaves you longing for a safe harbor, be assured that the ending is lifted from your familiar friend, William Shakespeare.
Leading a fine cast is Patrick Bynane as Dr. Prentice, a shrink on the make who has more personal and emotional problems than all his patients combined. Bynane makes us buy Prentice because he never questions or judges the motives of his character. He plows ahead with him like he is the most normal person in the room when, in reality, that could not be farther from the truth. The consistency of his irrationality is a joy to watch.
Stage West producing director Jerry Russell, as the snooping health department inspector, Dr. Rance, plays off Bynane like a skilled baseball hitter playing pepper. Every line is popped back with the same snap with which it is delivered. His only shortcoming is a British accent that is so lightly applied that it often disappears all together.
Dana Schultes brings an ideally jaded and slutty attitude to Mrs. Prentice, the hard-drinking, philandering wife of the justifiably randy Dr. Prentice. Her performance on Saturday's opening night was slightly marred, however, by a tendency to yell all of her lines in the first act.
Katherine Bourne (as the befuddled and abused job applicant Geraldine Barclay), Garret Storms (as Nicolas Beckett, a hotel employee who tries to serve guests a bit too well) and Dwight Greene (as the clueless British bobby, Sgt. Match) all make substantial contributions in their supporting roles.
Director Jim Covault does an outstanding job with this tricky material. He maintains the pace a comedy of this type demands while guiding its physical and verbal humor with equal aplomb. This show is controlled chaos at its finest, and Covault keeps steady hands on both the throttle and the rudder.
Costume designer Michael Robinson deserves a nod for knowing how to dress (or maybe more exactly, undress) a sex farce. His contributions are nicely naughty, while keeping the vice squad at bay.
There is one technical problem. The lighting design by Michael O'Brien creates ugly splotches on the women's wigs.
But, otherwise, there is little to fault in this crazy comedy. If you have any trouble getting into its off-kilter world initially, hang with it. The second act is even more uproarious than the first in this show where the mystery is solved, even though the butler didn't do it.