‘What the Butler Saw’ brims over with innuendo and farce

By Liz Keill

MADISON, NJ – Joe Orton’s outlandish farce, “What the Butler Saw,” is a hilarious change of pace for The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

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While Shakespeare himself has written his share of comedies, Orton’s play, written in 1967, takes a cunning, if cynical view, of psychiatry.  It’s a free-for-all take on lurid activities, mistaken identity and fast paced action.

Peter Simon Hilton is Dr. Prentice, a psychiatrist who has more than mental concerns on his mind. Hilton generally possesses a calm, bemused exterior, often keeping his cool despite an ever more frenetic plot. He can hardly resist the temptation of his potential receptionist, Geraldine Barclay. When he interviews Miss Barclay (Allison Layman), he convinces her that he needs to make a physical examination. Once she’s taken off her clothes, bedlam ensues.  Layman has just the right mix of innocence and righteous indignation.

Prentice’s wife (Vanessa Morosco) walks in, so the doctor must quickly hide any garments that Geraldine might have shed. But, it turns out, Mrs. Prentice has been having a fling with the bellhop, Nicholas Beckett.  Morosco manages to be all in a dither one moment, yet game for whatever happens next. Robbie Simpson plays the befuddled lover with aplomb. She thinks he would be a perfect receptionist, which of course complicates the situation.

Enter Doctor Rance (John Hutton) who is there to inspect the clinic and assess Dr. Prentice’s work. Hutton is superb has Rance, immediately attributing ulterior motives or psychological problems to any behavior he considers questionable, if not downright devious.

 Jeffrey M. Bender as Sergeant Match comes in to find out what has happened to Miss Barclay, who has mysteriously disappeared. By that time, she is in disguise as the bellhop. Then the bellhop must pretend to be Miss Barclay and somehow the policeman ends up in the midst of it all. And there are allusions to missing parts of Winston Churchill, just to add another bizarre twist.

 It all ends up in a profoundly funny and frantic muddle, under the astute direction of Paul Mullins.  The play is very British and very clever, with a convoluted scenario and lightning fast transitions.   (A butler never appears.) The stark set by Brittany Vasta and challenging costumes by Kristin Isola add to the complicated goings on in this crazy, but definitely delightful, entertainment.  Performances of “What the Butler Saw” continue through Oct. 1. For tickets, call 973-408-5600 or visit  ShakespeareNJ.org.