A Taper Tragedy

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

It's hard to make sense of the latest play at the Mark Taper Forum, Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw.

It's not that the 'it' of it is confusing.

Sure it takes a minute to get used to the accents but it's a straight forward British sex farce. You know the type? Rape jokes, buggery, incest, heavy drinking, scantily clad women, a naked man? You can almost hear the Benny Hill music in the background, can't you?

Written in 1967, it was the last of Mr. Orton's plays and it served, at the time, as something of a middle finger to the priggish British establishment. Lest we miss the point, the deus ex machina is quite literally Winston Churchill's male member held triumphantly aloft.

As a production, it's competent. The requisite multiple doors all there; the physical comedy realized if not inspired; the direction and acting hits all the necessary marks.

What's confusing is why do this play in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 2014?

What is it about this play that speaks to Artistic Director Michael Ritchie? What was it that made him think, 'I've got the perfect play for Los Angeles! I've found our holiday production!'?

It's not that I'm scandalized by, what 40 some odd years ago, must have seemed daring. To the contrary, surrounded by headlines filled with UVA sexual assaults, Bill Cosby's horrid past, and our current political mess - the play's politics feel at best horribly out of date.

It's not that I'm against revivals. The current production at Antaeus Wedding Band argues more clearly than I ever could for the importance of looking back artistically. But if you're going to take a play off the shelf instead of off the printer, you better have a good reason.

It's not even that I'm against farce. There are great farces - even great British farces. Take Blithe Spirit which Mr. Ritchie booked next door at the Ahmanson?

Was that it? Some clever notion to have two farces playing off each other?

Aside from fundraising, an artistic director's job is to pick the plays, set the artistic agenda: to find the voice of the theater and connect it with an audience.

At the Taper, I'm not sure what that voice is or who Mr. Ritchie imagines that audience to be. Sadly, I don't seem to be alone.

If we consider Mr. Ritchie's tenure at the Ahmanson or the Kirk Douglas, the other two theaters that make up Center Theater Group's triad, the story's slightly better. At the larger and more commercial, Ahmanson Theater, Mr. Ritchie has peppered the seasons with more dramas and some adventurous fare. At the Douglas, which just celebrated its tenth birthday, he seems to get intellectually, if not instinctually, the grittier programming profile.

But at the Taper, Mr. Ritchie seems at sea - unable to find the warm, redemptive embrace that under Gordon Davidson helped the theater speak not only to Los Angeles but also helped guide and nurture the American theater.

What the Butler Saw isn't a tragedy, but producing it at Taper is.

What the Butler Saw plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through December 21.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Running Time: 2 hours with an intermission

Photo: Sarah Manton and Charles Shaughnessy in What the Butler Saw. (Craig Schwartz)