I can't come up with a better description of British playwright Joe Orton than what critic Robert Bryden once labeled him: "The Oscar Wilde of the welfare state gentility." You're not five minutes into Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's production of Orton's What the Butler Saw when you realize that if Wilde had been alive in 1967, and free to write as smutty as he wanted, he would have turned out something like this. Who else but Wilde, or Orton, would have a female character admit to faking orgasms by saying "My uterine contractions have been bogus for some time!"
What the Butler Saw is Orton's razor-sharp satire of British sex comedies, classic Greek theater and, again and again, Wilde himself. This play shows why Orton was always in trouble with British censors, and why parts of the play -- especially the ending -- are still shocking even today.
Other parts, meanwhile, are just dismaying. Orton was a man of his time, and it was a time of unbelievable sexual hypocrisy (something Orton railed about only when it suited his purpose). To put it another way: In order for some of the jokes in the play to work, you need to have a highly vicious opinion of women. Normally, that sort of thing is enough to turn me off for good. But because Orton's lover, Kenneth Halliwell, beat in Orton's skull with a hammer, I'm going to look past the flaws.
And really, the rewards are high. Not only is Orton's construction of comedy as impeccable as Wilde's, he scores even higher when it comes to dramatic imagination; Orton's theatrical invention is breathtaking.
Irish & Classical has brought together an impressive company to tackle the show (with the battle taking place on Gianni Downs' remarkable set). Simon Bradbury directs Douglas Rees, Amanda Jane Cooper, Helena Ruoti, Sam Trussell, Martin Giles and Jeffrey Carpenter, and everyone is soooo close to where they should be.
This is an industrial-strength farce, brutal in its twin demands of style and timing, and everybody needs to turn it up several notches as well as tighten up cues and blocking. To be fair, I saw the show on opening night, and farce -- this kind of farce in particular -- requires endless rehearsals and monomaniacal focus. Considering the talent involved, there's no doubt that they'll get there.
What the Butler Saw continues through June 27. Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org