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Medical Malpractice: Dr. Prentice (Charles McKeithan) is not exactly a credit to his profession, as job applicant Miss Barclary (Katie O'Bryon) learns.

Orton's Scrubs

City Lights opens all the doors for Joe Orton's farce 'What the Butler Saw'

By Marianne Messina

IN CITY LIGHTS Theater Company's new production, What the Butler Saw, British playwright Joe Orton weaves a tangled web of farce (named for a London peep show, not a murder mystery). Psychiatrist Dr. Prentice (Charles McKeithan) tries to seduce his young secretarial applicant, Miss Barclay (Katie O'Bryon), and has her awaiting examination in a backroom, naked (having tossed her red undies and bra over the curtain). When his wife (Jackie O'Keefe) comes in unexpectedly (seductus interruptus), she initiates a succession of character entrances that require the doctor to invent ever more convoluted fabrications to cover up Miss Barclay's naked presence. With Freudian opportunism, the government psychiatric clinic inspector, Dr. Rance (John T. Aney), inflicts even more outrage on Geraldine Barclay.

Born in the wake of great exposé literature on psychiatric institutions, from Goffman to Kesey, Dr. Rance is intended to rankle. This is a play that got booed at its original openings. Aney plays the dull-suited Rance as clinically cold, a compulsive labeler and cataloguer whose sexual drives are so submerged that he can't even enjoy the fact that he's perpetrating a D/s player's fantasy on Miss Barclay. Putting Aney's Rance up against Bryon's bright-eyed, congenial ingenue, raises Dr. Rance's dehumanization factor to around 10 and leaves the humor strangely ambiguous, especially taking into account some puerile, not-so-funny lines like "The insane are famous for their wild ways."

Granted, Orton was murdered by his male lover before he had a chance to polish off the play's epigrams. But even Dr. Prentice is more appalling than funny for about the first 20 minutes. Perhaps the iconoclastic Orton would be pleased. Then comes a well-engineered visual bit with a vase of roses. The image of Prentice hurriedly snipping off rose stems so the flowers will fit back in the vase on top of Miss Barclay's shoe marks a definite turning point, and the play chooses humor. In fact, all the vase bits blend great timing and execution with well-chosen props.

As the entanglements get thicker and the four doorways get busier, all the elements of this '60s, "swinging London" doctor's office start to come together in the most perfectly horrid little farce. Set designer Ron Gasparinetti's delicious, hideous purple chair in the form of a hand is appropriately tacky for the prurient doctor Prentice to see his patients in. And McKeithan's beady eyes darting about in guilty desperation are so right that you can imagine the steam forming on his thick black-rimmed glasses. The "songs from the '60s" Laugh-In-style soundtrack makes ideal dirty old man music.

There's always a question of how real or camp to play these characters, and the ratio seems to be directly related to how much of a squirm factor you like with your comedy. This production falls somewhere in the middle on both counts. O'Keefe makes the doctor's promiscuous and demanding wife just the person who would put the screws to him—world-wise, hungry, flirtatious and still in love with her husband, quite a package. And Tom Gough as the earnest pushover bobby, Sgt. Match, is wonderfully stiff and manages to look perpetually baffled during some funny gags (the infamous British flag underwear) without busting up. You'll find everyone—except the doctors—running around in their knickers in this one. So put your prurience on and enjoy.


What the Butler Saw, a City Lights Theater Company production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm through April 23 at City Lights, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$28. (408.295.4200)


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From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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