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Nowhere man
Nathan Lane lays claim to Butley
By Simon Gray. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Set by Alexander Dodge. Costumes by Michael Krass. Lighting by David Weiner. Sound by Kurt Kellenberger. With Nathan Lane, Benedick Bates, Marguerite Stimpson, Angela Thornton, Pamela J. Gray, Jake Weber, and Austin Lysy. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston University Theatre through November 30.

Benedick Bates was born the year his father, the English actor Alan Bates, first sloshed in the cup of Scotch and vitriol that is Simon Gray’s 1971 Butley. Nathan Lane, then Joe Lane, was a stage-bit teen taken to a matinee when the Tony-nominated play, with Bates reprising his turn as the dissipated university professor for whom one-upmanship is a blood sport, hit Broadway in 1972-’73. Now Lane and the younger Bates have been matched in a rare revival of the sad-funny, sardonic work by the Huntington Theatre Company that, given two-time Tony winner Lane’s celebrity, is a bit of an event. Certainly one senses the throwing arm of director Nicholas Martin winding up for a pitch toward Broadway — the ultimate destination of his 2001 Hedda Gabler, which starred Kate Burton as a Butley-esque version of Ibsen’s heroine.

But is Butley, which was also made into a 1974 movie for American Film Theatre, as good as it is famous? "In point of fact," as the more prosaic denizens of the play say repeatedly, Butley is a character sketch disguised as a drama: a portrait of the middle-aged, alcoholic, acerb academic in bravura flame-out as he learns, in the course of a single day, that his estranged wife is divorcing him to marry "the most boring man in London," his literary and sexual protégé is also moving in with another man, and a female colleague he despises is about to publish a book when he can no longer muster the intellectual rigor to grade a paper. The corrosive comedy is very much tied to its place and time: second-tier English academe in the early 1970s (Gray was a long-time toiler at the conglomeration of colleges that make up the University of London, here called "London University"), a time when homosexuality was more furtive and less chic than it is now.

But burnt-out T.S. Eliot scholar Ben Butley himself — he is a masterpiece just waiting to be occupied by a brilliant actor (a paucity of which is said to account for the lack of revivals). Thirty years after Bates squatted on the role, it’s got another worthy tenant in the multi-talented Lane, who has apparently been flirting with the assignment since the mid 1980s, when he appeared in the American premiere of Gray’s The Common Pursuit. Bates’s Butley was shaggier and more disheveled; Lane’s, while swilling his way from caustic mania to near-coma, is more antic and debonair: he’s a sad-eyed wreck all right, but one who owns an iron.

Martin’s production carefully acknowledges the time and the milieu of the play, from the 1970ish soft rock to the stark attic office, a train-station men’s room crossed with a garret, where Butley and his lecturer disciple and defecting lover, Joey Keyston, share a couple of metal desks, a clutter of strewn books, and Joey’s clean socks. A half-eaten banana, a Scotch bottle tossed among the tomes, and the ripped Eliot poster would seem to be Butley’s alone. The play is talky and takes a while to get its mouth going at full, scathing speed. Martin respects that, too, allowing Lane’s frustrated Butley to fight his way through a phlegmmy cough and the fog of a morning hangover as he wrestles (hilariously) with recalcitrant office equipment before starting to bounce brutal, nursery-rhyme-dotted bons mots off the walls like hardballs. Once up and running, Lane presents a Butley who, albeit a professional disgrace with a facile mean streak, is not without an insouciant, childish charm. Showing off accents, feigning affectation, deliberately misunderstanding syntax to mischievous effect, his Butley wears his withering, literate sarcasm almost like a boutonnière. And whether he’s circling some prey like an incongruously cuddly, compulsively clever vulture or sitting like a ghost amid the conjoined junk heap of his depressing office and ruined life, you can’t take your eyes off him.

The rest of the play’s characters, with one exception, are like cat toys for Butley to bat around. To his surprise, the IQ-showboating, class-conscious character meets his match in Joey’s new, Leeds-bred boyfriend, a handsome hack publisher named Reg Nuttall; at the Huntington, Reg is well played by lanky Jake Weber, who’s wrapped in a plush camel coat and an interesting mix of patient sympathy and Pinteresque menace. There’s a nice performance, too, by Marguerite Stimpson as a pinched, amusingly determined student subjected to Butley; Lane’s bleary reaction to her florid essay on "Hate and Redemption in A Winter’s Tale" is itself a miniature essay on pain begetting irresponsibility. The tall, good-looking Bates paints a watchful if bland portrait of opportunistic acolyte and sparring partner Joey, whom even his new beau describes as "gutless." But Joey’s no match for Lane’s Johnny Appleseed of futility. Neither, really, is the play.

Issue Date: November 7 - 13, 2003
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