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Fast Lane
Butley star is a funny man

AT A RECENT press conference with two-time Tony winner Nathan Lane, who is in town to play the acerbic academic at the center of British writer Simon Gray’s 1971 play Butley for the Huntington Theatre Company, a reporter asked the actor, "When did you first know you were funny?" Nonplussed but ever droll, the boyish-looking Lane replied, "I don’t know the day and hour I realized I was funny. It’s one of those things you pick up as a kid. At school you think, ‘Oh look, they’re laughing, maybe I’m funny.’" At which point another journalist, referring to Professor Ben Butley’s propensity for remarks that would melt paint, inexplicably queried, "Is it a stretch for you to play sarcastic?" "When did you first realize you were funny?" Lane shot back, proving for the fourth or fifth time in 20 minutes that he is indeed funny, even without Butley’s withering wit packed into his mouth.

Lane appeared with director Nicholas Martin and co-star Benedick Bates to chat up the local scribes in anticipation of Butley. Martin, of course, is the live-wire artistic director of the Huntington, whose Butley-esque staging of Hedda Gabler moved from the Williamstown Theatre Festival to the Huntington to Broadway. Bates is the son of the English actor Alan Bates, who originated the role of Ben Butley, a jaded, self-destructive London University prof who learns on the same day that his estranged wife is remarrying and that his younger male lover is leaving him. The elder Bates played Butley in the initial 1971 London production of the play (which was directed by Harold Pinter), on Broadway, and in the 1976 film (also directed by Pinter).

"Nathan and I have been talking for a year or two, when we meet at parties, about a project together," Martin explained. "We discussed a lot of things over the years, and then we met for dinner and this was one of two or three projects that seemed the most exciting to us. It was my idea, but Nathan had had it before. Or, more specifically, Simon Gray had had it before. In fact, it was Simon’s dream, and I’m not overstating it, for Nathan to play Butley."

Lane, you see, is no stranger to the works of Gray, which include Otherwise Engaged, Quartermaine’s Terms, and The Common Pursuit. "I saw Butley on Broadway," recalled the actor, adding pointedly, "when I was very, very young. And I just remembered Alan’s mesmerizing performance. In fact, this copy of Butley," he said, brandishing a hard-cover script, "is from the Fireside Theatre, which I was a member of, a play-of-the-month club, which I got after I saw Butley. And I would read it, and I would think, ‘Oh, maybe one day I could play that.’ And then, if you look there, Ben," he continued, sticking the script under Bates’s nose, "it says ‘Nathan Lane. Love, Simon. Long Wharf Theatre, January 16, 1985.’ We worked together on a play called The Common Pursuit, which had its American premiere at the Long Wharf. And I did it in Los Angeles and Off Broadway in New York, and along the way we would always talk about doing Butley. But he kept saying I was too young."

Time has taken care of that. Lane, who is best known for his flamboyant Broadway turns in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Guys and Dolls, and The Producers, as well as for the hit film The Birdcage, is 47. The addition of the younger Bates, 32, to the Huntington project, said Lane, gave it an "interesting symmetry." Bates, who is named for the marriage-phobic Benedick of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, starred last year with his father and Frank Langella on Broadway in Fortune’s Fool and is in the Guy Ritchie film The Hard Case. Here he plays Butley’s English-department colleague, office mate, and departing squeeze Joey Keyston.

Lane, whose real first name is Joe, appropriated his professional one from Nathan Detroit, overseer of the oldest floating crap game in New York in Guys and Dolls, long before he played the role to acclaim. A multi-talented performer, he makes himself distinctive even when he isn’t there, supplying the voices of Timon in the Lion King films and Snowbell in the Stuart Little ones. He is equally at home in blockbuster musicals and straight plays — if the works of Terrence McNally, including The Lisbon Traviata and Love! Valour! Compassion!, for both of which Lane won Drama Desk Awards, can be called that. Asked whether he prefers one genre to another, the actor deadpanned, "I just prefer working."

Of Ben Butley he said, "It’s just a fascinating character who at times doesn’t try to track why he does what he does. A lot of it is that he’s selfish. His way of dealing with people, even people he may care deeply about, is to antagonize them and engage with them intellectually, sometimes in a very childish way. And yet he’s also very witty and obviously charming, when he needs to be, and has been able to draw people to him. All of that combined makes for a fascinating character to try to crack."

Lane is not convinced, though, that Butley’s bad behavior is intended as a slap at the professorial profession. "I don’t know if it’s a scathing indictment of academia," he said of the play. "It’s a scathing indictment of his [Butley’s] teaching methods, his avoidance of his job. At this point in his life, he’s bored by it on a certain level. And on this particular day, he thinks it’s just going to be another day. He just shows up to try to get through the day. And then it just turns out to be a very traumatic day." Lane smiled mischievously. "But he goes down fighting."

There is much excitement on Huntington Avenue at having an actor as award-winning and well-regarded as Lane guesting on the Boston University Theatre boards. But, said Martin, "We mustn’t get trapped in our rapture about having important and talented people here. It’s a remarkable play, and one of the reasons it hasn’t been done over all these years, I think, is that no one has come forward who has the multifaceted personality that could interpret Butley. Nor has anyone come through with the kind of depth and complexity that Joey requires, which Ben has. So it was one of those lucky accidents that happens in art all the time."

As to whether there is hope at the Huntington that this production, like Hedda Gabler, will make its way to New York, all concerned are coy. Martin summed up the effect of Lane’s star power: "We’ve sold a lot more tickets." And Lane pooh-poohed the idea of aspirations beyond the Huntington run. "I would say that the idea behind all of this, besides wanting to do the play because we love the play, was that I wanted to support Nicky and what he’s been doing here, which I think has been terrific and has turned out to be very successful. It wasn’t about coming here to try the play out." He added, with deadly timing and a straight face, "I think the play works."

Yep, Nathan Lane is funny.

Butley is presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston University Theatre, October 24 through November 30. Tickets are $14 to $64; call (617) 266-0800.

Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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