Theater review: Butley


Booth Theatre, New York
Through Jan. 14

It's easy to see why Nathan Lane would be attracted to the title role of "Butley," Simon Gray's little-seen play that has not been revived on Broadway since its 1972 production starring the Tony-winning Alan Bates. The character, a burnt-out English university professor addicted to booze and cigarettes who must cope with myriad professional and personal disappointments in one long day, displays the kind of bitter anger that always has been an essential element of Lane's comic performances.

The current revival, directed by Nicholas Martin and arriving on Broadway after a previous production several years ago at the Huntington Theatre Company, indeed offers its lead performer great opportunities to chew the scenery, a task made easier by the fact that his character is onstage for the entire duration.

The play itself doesn't seem to hold up particularly well, seeming rather anemic when compared with such richer Gray works as "The Common Pursuit" and "Quartermaine's Terms." It is essentially a character portrait in which its titular figure suffers a procession of indignities: His marriage is dissolving and his wife (Pamela Gray) has found another man; his officemate and lover Joseph (Julian Ovenden) has engaged in a similar betrayal; and a fellow professor (Dana Ivey) is about to get her book published, while his own, on T.S. Eliot, is languishing. All the while, he's dodging a succession of students desperate for a few minutes of his time.

What makes Butley's travails interesting to watch is his scathing wit, and Lane delivers his verbal put-downs and sarcastic asides with his trademark expert comic timing and vocal bluster. But he uncharacteristically fails to command the stage here, not managing to convey the authority that would make his character's rapid descent moving. It is a fatal flaw if we are to care for this essentially obnoxious, self-involved figure.

The supporting players make vivid impressions in their often fleeting roles, with particularly strong work by Ivey as the deceptively astute professor and Darren Pettie as the romantic rival who violently puts Butley in his place (even here, though, the casting seems off, as Lane is not exactly a formidable physical presence).

Technical elements are excellent; especially striking is Alexander Dodge's set design of a claustrophobic attic office that seems to be closing in on its occupants.