Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw at the Mark Taper Forum

photo by Craig Schwartz

British playwright Joe Orton, who rose from a working class background and a stint in prison to a short but prolific life as one of Britain's most outstanding playwrights, never lived to see a production of his brilliant farce What the Butler Saw. Orton, who was murdered by his lover nearly two years before its debut, wrote the play partly in response to Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, combining the drawing room elements of Wilde's play with Orton's darker, more outrageous perspective.

Dark comedies -- especially those that lampoon social and sexual mores -- often lose their edge and humor over time. But Orton's work continues to dazzle, especially in the hands of director John Tillinger and a talented cast at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. From government bureaucracy to the psychiatric establishment, from bourgeois morality to sexual puritanism, Orton's gallops through the thicket of traditional shibboleths, slashing and burning with every sly and witty quip.

Orton draws on everything from commedia dell'arte to British vaudeville and French farce in constructing this rapid-fire farce. Director Tillinger grabs this tiger by the tail and rides it for all its worth, never backing down from the high-strung, door-slamming tone. The performances are outstanding. Paxton Whitehead is relentlessly funny as the unflappable psychiatric major domo who never saw a theory he didn't like. Charles Shaughnessy does a delightful turn as the hapless Dr. Prentice. Frances Barber is hysterical as the sex-starved Mrs. Prentice. And Sarah Manton as the innocent secretary, Angus McEwan as the horny bellhop and Rod McLachlan as the duty-bound bobby all round out a cast that goes for broke in this no-holds-barred production.