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Theater review: ‘What the Butler Saw’ at the Odyssey Theatre

January 26, 2012 |  3:00 pm

"What the Butler Saw"
“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.

Director Alan Patrick Kenny recognizes the comedy’s darker purpose, shifting the tone to lurid nightmare at exactly the right moment. Standout characterizations are Troop’s damsel in undress, Melinda Parrett’s frustrated nymphomaniac, and Ciaran Joyce’s bawdy blackmailing bellhop. Still, there’s too much actorly business in the elegant wordplay leading up to the pivot point — it’s like watching tennis players take a self-congratulatory pause after each stroke, extending the match by a good quarter-hour and falling short of Oscar Wilde’s dictum: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh.”

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More theater reviews from the Los Angeles Times

-- 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.

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