What is naughty or nice is often a matter of when the question is asked. In 1967 when it debuted, "What the Butler Saw" was not only naughty, it was downright scandalous. In 2014? Not so much. Still witty, still fast-paced, Joe Orton's posthumously produced play has become a classic of sorts. Now highly proclaimed, the 34-year-old Orton wrote just three plays before he was murdered by his lover of many years, Kenneth Halliwell. That is pretty scandalous in any decade.
The setting for "Butler" is a private mental sanatorium. As befits a farce, Geraldine Barclay (the pert Sarah Manton) is being interviewed by the salacious Dr. Prentice (a well-cast Charles Shaughnessy) when he informs her she must disrobe as he will need to do a physical examination beginning with her shapely legs. His wife (Frances Barber), an apparent nymphomaniac whom he married falsely assuming she was wealthy, bursts through one of the many doors on the set — all the better to stage classic-farce rapid entrances and exits, my dear. Mrs. Prentice opens her coat to reveal she is wearing only a slip and the good doctor throws her Miss Barclay's dress; Miss Barclay is now trapped naked behind the modesty curtain surrounding the examining table.
Ribald witticisms fly fast and furiously as the pompous Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead) enters. To cover up his misdeed, Prentice says he is examining a new patient. From that point on no matter how levelheaded and clear Miss Barclay is about her reasons for being there and unclothed, Dr. Rance's peculiar logic finds evidence of her insanity. Whitehead is perfectly pompous, leading to much laughter from the audience.
Shortly after “Butler” was written, a well-regarded study, "On Being Sane in Insane Places" was published by David L. Rosenhan in the journal Science. Rosenhan had an assortment of people including graduate students, and mental health professionals (himself included) present themselves to a variety of mental hospitals across the country. Each simply said he or she was hearing voices. On the basis of that symptom, all were admitted and from that point on, no matter that their responses were calm and sane, they were labeled, without question, as schizophrenic. In the 1960's, homosexuality was also officially diagnosed as a disease.
Multiple asides suggest that the good doctors were not above a bit of buggery when opportunity presents itself. And a well shaped bellboy who "raped" Mrs. Prentice to her apparent thorough enjoyment has occasion to drop his uniform and run across the stage several times. A not so well shaped police Sergeant looses his pants, too. The circumstances are still humorous but they carry none of the power that they packed in the 1960s.
All in all, John Tillinger's direction is tight. The Taper stage does not exactly reproduce the feeling of an examining room or a doctor's office, but it hardly seems important. "What the Butler Saw" is certainly entertaining, but will it last as a mark of great theater? That remains to be seen. Are you going to remember it a month from now? My bet is no.