Summer Laughs from Crighton’s Missing “Butler”

It was only natural for audiences attending this summer’s Crighton Theatre production of “What the Butler Saw,” to expect to see a butler in the show. But the butler never shows up amid the broad comedy of British playwright/satirist, Joe Orton’s 1969 play. Actually, the phrase “what the butler saw” is a suggestive one, with its roots in the earliest motion picture/flipbook video machines that one would have found in British arcades during the early part of the last century. Some of those machines actually enticed viewers by displaying a picture of a leering butler, with the promise of scantily clad ladies for those who insert a coin to peek inside. Those who peeked inside the Crighton Theatre recently were similarly rewarded, whether they liked it or not. Judging from the laughter, many of them liked it a lot.

Now I confess that broad, bawdy humor is not especially “my cup of tea,” as the Brits might say. But the Crighton has aimed at widening its audience by presenting plays of diverse appeal. Different strokes, as it were, for different folks. Hopefully this approach will have favorable long-term impact on regularly filling the house for this absolute gem of a theater.

But back to director Don Hampton’s summer production of “Butler.” Appropriately described as an “adult comedy,” the play opens on the beautifully crafted set design of Mr. Hampton and Daniel Schwartz, with tasteful costumes from Lynn Peverill, and fine lighting from Justin Woods. All the racy action takes place in the office of the very lusty Dr. Prentice (Dennis O’Connor) as he gets himself into assorted pickles while trying to seduce his potential new secretary Geraldine (Jenny Wassom). We know something is up when he begins her interview with, “Kindly remove your stockings.” Poorly timed visits from his alcoholic wife (Carolyn Wong) add further mayhem to the doctor’s day. Wong’s droll delivery of a line reminds one of actress Eve Arden. And Mrs. Prentice has been doing some frolicking of her own with a certain hotel bellhop named Nicholas (James Wassom). The good doctor seems aware of her transgressions when he tells her, “You were born with your legs apart! They’ll send you to your grave in a “Y”-shaped coffin!” Mr. Wassom is a howl when disguised in drag; and to round out the fun we have the arrival of a state medical inspector named Dr. Rance (Dale Trimble), and an amusing cockney turn from Vince O’Connor as the police officer, Sergeant Match.

As the title suggests, there is plenty of underwear on display during the cross-dressing slapstick of the antic mix-ups that follow. I won’t attempt to dwell at great length on this bit of comic fluff, but it does poke gentle fun at psychiatry. On the warm Sunday afternoon that I attended a matinee, there was a cool flow of laughter from the Crighton audience that surrounded me. Even if the high jinks were a bit over-the-top for this viewer, many in the crowd were obviously enjoying this silly respite from a hot day in Texas. What could be bad, as long as the kiddies were safely at home?

(The Villager    7.29.04)

(The Courier    7.30.04)

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at
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