Observe the speed limit, if you must. But proceed with all due haste to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison.
And if, perchance, you get pulled over en route, politely explain to the officer that no matter what the radar gun said, you weren’t flying half as fast as the laughs at What the Butler Saw.
This ferocious farce, which runs through Oct. 1, 2017, is possibly the world’s funniest tragedy.
The tragic part is that playwright Joe Orton didn’t live to see his masterwork performed–or to write more comedy.
His longtime companion bludgeoned him to death, and then swallowed a fatal dose of sleeping pills, a month after Orton finished What the Butler Saw in 1967. Orton was just 34.
Set in an insane asylum, the play was daring for its day. It flouted and flaunted sexual taboos at a time when they could have landed Orton, who was openly gay, in a British prison.
After a half-century of pop culture, the taboos no longer are shocking. But the play’s core question — who defines “truth”? — remains all too relevant in an era when falsehoods threaten to undermine the foundations of society.
“Civilizations have been founded and maintained on theories which refused to obey facts,” opines Dr. Rance, the government inspector who is a central protagonist in What the Butler Saw.
Played with devilish pomposity by John Hutton, Dr. Rance skewers the psychiatric profession by snap-misdiagnosing every character in the play — which starts with the respected Dr. Prentice attempting to seduce virginal secretarial candidate Geraldine Barclay (Allison Layman).
Peter Simon Hilton’s Dr. Prentice is a cross between Monty Python’s Graham Chapman and John Cleese. He and Rance wage an all-out duel for laughs. Prentice takes the early lead, but Rance comes on strong as the first act roars to intermission at breakneck speed.
The complications snowball when Dr. Prentice’s cougar-ish wife, played by Vanessa Morosco (Hippolyta/Titania under the stars this summer in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) barges into her husband’s office and nearly discovers his half-naked secretarial applicant.
Dr. Prentice’s feverish attempts to hide Barclay devolve into a rapid-fire, slapstick series of mistaken identities, compounded by Dr. Rance’s fallacious deductions.
Clothing is shed. Genders get bent. Sedatives are injected. Bellhops (Robbie Simpson) become cops (Jeffrey M. Bender). Bullets fly.
Never mind hitting their marks. It’s a testament to the actors and to veteran director Paul Mullins that nobody gets hurt in this comic maelstrom.
Just as the storm appears to peter out in the second act, it gathers renewed force and spins in an unexpected direction.
Morosco’s Mrs. Prentice performs a feat in a straitjacket that would make Houdini proud. Skeletons tumble from linen closets. Sir Winston Churchill makes a cameo appearance.
Like we said, hit the gas. Check your inhibitions at the door. Re-fasten your seat belt. And enjoy the tragically hysterical ride.