Theater review: ‘What the Butler Saw’ at the Odyssey Theatre
“Have you taken up transvestism?” demands the psychiatrist’s wife in Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw,” after catching her husband furtively clutching a dress. “I’d no idea our marriage teetered on the brink of fashion.”
If it sounds like something out of Oscar Wilde, there’s a reason: the shortest distance between “The Importance of Being Earnest” and Orton’s 1967 farce is a line straight through Sigmund Freud. Both plays waged war on hypocrisy through brilliant epigrams, but where Wilde couched barbs in the guise of frothy triviality, Orton brought subversive psychosexual subtext to the surface in this final work, completed just before his tragic, untimely death.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s revival nails the savagery in Orton’s assault on the (literal) straitjacket of middle-class morality, but stumbles over too much of the required comic timing.
A nicely detailed insane asylum is the ideal setting for Orton’s libido-driven characters, starting with the head shrink’s (John Walcutt) attempt to seduce his would-be secretary (Amanda Troop). Orton masterfully employs lost clothing, gender-switched mistaken identities, absurd coincidences, and other deconstructed sex farce conventions to mock psychiatry, sexual deviance, politics, religion and sanity itself. Most of the satire holds up admirably, but a little English historical context (homosexuality had just been decriminalized and reverence for the recently-deceased Winston Churchill was universal) helps fully appreciate the outrage the play first caused.
-- Philip Brandes
“What the Butler Saw,” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (except March 4 at 7 p.m.). Ends March 11. $25-$30. (310) 477-2055 or www.odysseytheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Photo: Amanda Troop and Geoffrey Wade. Credit: Enci.