One on the funniest performances I've seen in years is being offered these days by Caroline Jett as the horny alcoholic Mrs. Prentice in Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw. This Jobsite Theater production is worth viewing for lots of reasons, but even in a strong cast, Jett's desperate housewife stands out. She's a woman who can't stay away from booze or from any surface, animate or inanimate, on which she might pleasure herself. When we first meet her, we're aware that she's dissatisfied with her marriage, but by the end of the evening, her reckless appetite for sex and spirits reaches such extreme levels, she's drinking whiskey straight from the decanter, and publicly dragging herself back and forth across the top of a bureau in search of an elusive climax. Randy men are common enough in the theater, from Lysistrata to Brighton Beach Memoirs, but Jett graphically demonstrates that a mature woman can be just as comically sex-starved as any pimply teenaged boy. And in fact, Jett's entire performance, from the farce's relatively slow first minutes to its raucous conclusion, is devastatingly comic. This is fearless acting, and it packs a strong punch.
But so does Orton's play, which has nothing to do with butlers, and everything to do with the psychopathology of everyday life. When the play begins, the psychiatrist Dr. Prentice is interviewing one Geraldine Barclay for a position as his secretary. The position he really has in mind is the horizontal one, though, and when he asks Barclay to remove her clothes, it seems we're in the presence of a typical British sex farce. But Orton's going for bigger game: he's more interested in the triumph of psychobabble in our time, and particularly the way the psychiatric interpretation of society can get so bound up in its own logic, it fails to disclose the human beings in front of it. This theme becomes clear once Dr. Rance, a kind of inspector-general of psychiatrists, shows up at Prentice's office and encounters Prentice and Barclay along with Prentice's needy wife and Nicholas Beckett, a blackmailing bellhop. Rance is a master of psychiatric jargon, and his deductions would be brilliant if not for the fact that they're always entirely wrong. For example, he takes one look at the Prentice/Barclay duo and immediately reasons that the young would-be secretary was molested by her father, went mad when her church tolerated the abuse and counseled chastity, and now has removed her clothes in an effort to force Dr. Prentice, whom she identifies with her guilty parent, to re-enact the primal incest. Of course, none of this is the case; but Rance blithely proceeds to make this and further misjudgments, while all around him the unnoticed real story swirls anarchically. Prentice and his wife argue about their sex lives, Beckett negotiates the return of certain pornographic photographs, Barclay ends up in Beckett's clothes, Beckett takes on a wig and a dress, and an innocent policeman named Match is informed, "You're in a madhouse. Unusual behavior is the order of the day." Then he's sedated and treated like another madman in need of treatment.
Like Jett's performance, Orton's play starts slowly and then builds to a hilarious crescendo. Helping it along is Jobsite artistic director David M. Jenkins, who gives one of the best performances of his career as the colossally misunderstood Dr. Prentice. Jenkins, sporting a beard here, is fast, funny and physical, and it's wonderful to watch his expressive face register exasperation. As his superior Dr. Rance, Ward Smith has all the aplomb of a Sherlock Holmes who not for a minute realizes that he's miles from real sense. Katie Castonguay is delightfully silly as Geraldine Barkley, the not-very-smart woman who just wants a job and finds herself instead being certified insane and placed in a straitjacket. The other two actors aren't quite as interesting: Dayton Sinkia as Beckett is at his best in his first few minutes, but never really builds his character any further, and Michael C. McGreevy as Sergeant Match is uni-dimensional (though, in truth, he plays that dimension very well). Katrina Stevenson stages the play at an appropriately rapid clip, and only errs in underscoring a late sequence with superfluous music. But there's nothing at all wrong with Brian Smallheer's psychiatrist's office set, or with Smallheer's fine lighting.
Orton's life ended tragically — he was beaten to death, at the age of 34, by his lover, Ken Halliwell — but he left the English-speaking theatre several farces that won't die. Butler may be the best of them; and the Jobsite version does it proud. I can heartily recommend it to lovers of intelligent lunacy — and of laughter.