Nathan Lane is giving what many will consider a dazzling performance as the title character in the troubled revival of Simon Gray’s 1971 play Butley that premiered back in 2003 at Boston’s Huntington Theatre. Mr. Lane is undoubtedly one of the few bankable Broadway stars around today, and he appears to be the main reason for the re-staging of this rather dated study of a brilliant, but self loathing college professor.With a reported three million dollars in advance ticket sales, what remains to be seen is if the limited run will have the legs to be a bona fide hit and ultimately be extended.
Still basking from the glow of his hysterically funny multi award winning performance as Max Bialystock in the immensely popular hit musical The Producers, the star turned last season’s tired production of the Neil Simon classic into another box office bonanza. Will lighting strike yet again? Will the public pay to watch Lane’s impersonation of the hostile character that Alan Bates indelibly created on Broadway in 1972 with his Tony Award winning portrayal. Much will depend on word of mouth, but New York’s important critics will play a large part in shaping the response.
Essentially a character study of a self absorbed professor, the action takes place in real time over the course of a single day and is set in the academic office (wonderfully rendered here with appropriate slovenliness by Alexander Dodge) that Butley shares with his younger protégé and live in lover Joseph (Julian Ovenden). As the play unfolds Butley learns not only that his estranged wife Anne (Pamela Gray) wants a divorce so she may remarry, but that Joseph is leaving him, as well, for a successful publisher (Darren Pettie). The drowning Butley, armed with cigarettes and a bottle of scotch, struggles in vain to ward off his mounting pain and to control the day’s unraveling events with his lacerating wit.
The two-time Tony Award winning Mr. Lane is a gifted comedian, who has turned in some searing dramatic work most notably in Terrance McNally’s Lisbon Traviata. His impressive performance here of the once prominent scholar has the perfect English accent, but his Butley is little more than a mannered bag of his stock tricks; very accomplished, indeed, very funny with all the barbs landing beautifully and very angry, as well. So what’s wrong? He may astound you, but he never gets to the insane alcoholic level necessary to breathe life into Butley. This isn’t an honest characterization, but instead a beautifully polished surface. The actor has not dug deep enough to the core of the rotting spirit that drives Butley. Oh yes, there are times when he truly catches hold and can even be shocking like in the scene with his wife, where he suddenly turns nasty, but the performance doesn’t add up. He plays the ending, but don’t be fooled, he doesn’t really get there.
Directed by Nicholas Martin the evening has moments too, but rarely slows down and on the whole nothing feels lived in or genuinely moving. The chemistry between Lane and his lover is non existent, and the bisexuality that was titillating in 1972 is equally numbed in 2006. Like Mr. Lane’s very likable portrayal there is no under belly, you see the mechanics, but th
e momentum is lacking so the events fail to accumulate to the playwrights devastating conclusion.
The accomplished supporting cast, that includes Dana Ivey, Jessica Stone, and Roderick Hill, delivers beautifully articulated performances that are postured, often measured, displaying the appropriate qualities and little more. This is all done with smoke and mirrors. You will certainly hear the playwright’s marvelous dialogue in the finely constructed play, and you will laugh, but don’t be duped it isn’t real. If you are looking for a show that confirms Nathan Lane’s status as an elegant wit this staging by Mr. Martin may very well be worth the price of admission, but if on the other hand you desire to be moved by an emotionally involving drama Butley will surely be a downer and possibly even a bore.
gordin & christiano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
Butley opened on Broadway at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue on October 25, 2006 for a limited 14 week run that is scheduled to end January 14, 2007. For tickets call 212-239-6200 or at the box office.