“Ping!” goes the epigram as it bounces off the wall of a London university professor’s office. “Zing!” goes the zinger, whizzing across the room.
In the uneasy revival of Simon Gray’s “Butley” (1971), which opened last night at the Booth Theater, Nathan Lane fires off witticisms as if they were silver bullets with “Made in England” engraved upon their sides.
“Lust is no excuse for thoughtlessness,” snaps Mr. Lane, as Ben Butley, the suicidally clever title character of Mr. Gray’s fine dramatic portrait of a man drowning in bad faith. Or: “She told me that if I was half a man, I’d leave, but on discovering that she was, she left herself.”
Mr. Lane being Mr. Lane, one of the best comic marksmen in the theater, he repeatedly hits the bull’s-eye that automatically sets off an audience’s laughter. Somehow, though, the lines seem to exist independent of the character who speaks them. They sparkle and sometimes even sting.
This is not the same as their being vapors in a toxic fog given off by a soul rotting in its own unhappiness. Ben Butley, who was indelibly created by Alan Bates on the London stage and on Broadway three decades ago, is in essence less the target shooter that Mr. Lane gives us than a slow-leaking human dirty bomb.
If you happen to be an American Anglophile looking for a night at the theater to confirm your belief that no one quips more elegantly than a witty Brit, then Nicholas Martin’s production may well be the show for you. But if you were expecting a seamless, emotionally stirring marriage between a first-rate actor and a first-rate play, then “Butley” disappoints.
It’s not that the elements for such a marriage don’t exist. Though Mr. Lane is best known as a king of musical comedy (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “The Producers”), there has never been any doubt that he also has the gift of showing us exactly where it hurts. In Terrence McNally’s “Lisbon Traviata” and Jon Robin Baitz’s “Mizlansky/Zilinsky, or ‘Schmucks’,” he brilliantly embodied self-lacerating characters who wield humor like a double-sided razor blade.
Mr. Martin, who staged “Butley” with Mr. Lane for the Huntington Theater Company in Boston three years ago, is the director who subversively applied the rhythms of drawing-room comedy to shed light on the darkness of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” in a 2001 Broadway production. “Butley” would seem to be just his cup of tainted tea. But as Butley himself remarks, “Our beginnings never know our ends.”
This production has moments that hint at the “Butley” that might have been, brief glimpses afforded by Mr. Lane of pure pain and savagery that make you sit up and go “Whoa!” It seems telling that most of these moments are silent. For this “Butley” is one of those Broadway shows that achieves a state of paralyzing self-consciousness by trying to live up to its English accent.
Everyone in the cast, with two prominent exceptions, is plagued by an affliction that might be called the Importance of Sounding British, which causes actors to speak with the corseted plumminess associated with American productions of comedies by Wilde and Coward. This disease plays a large role in preventing the production from achieving the effortless-seeming continuity of a life being lived (and gutted) before our eyes.
“Butley” portrays a few hours of the destructive games that its title character plays in his office (designed with appropriately oppressive squalor by Alexander Dodge), dodging tutorials with eager students; baiting friends, enemies, lovers and colleagues, and hiding from hurtful facts. A once promising scholar of T. S. Eliot, whose large photograph hovers reproachfully over his desk, Butley has become a heavy-drinking, work-shirking, barb-wielding mess who could step without missing a beat into the nasty late-night rituals of another play set in academe, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Like “Virginia Woolf,” “Butley” occurs in continuous real time (interrupted only by the intermission), and it has a nearly Aristotelian precision of classical structure. As Butley observes of the symmetry of the events and encounters of his day, “We’re preserving the unities.”
What’s so wonderful about Mr. Gray’s script is how naturally the unities fall into place and how inevitably yet stealthily self-knowledge descends upon its protagonist (as long as we’re being Aristotelian). To be effective, the play must flow like one single polluted stream, as Butley engages in a series of word-driven battles with combatants who include his estranged wife, Anne (Pamela Gray), and his roomate, office mate and academic protégé, Joseph Keyston (Julian Ovenden).
Mr. Martin’s production feels too visibly articulated; you can see the joints that move the action. Ideally, Butley’s sustained rant about his life — a rant compounded of bright remarks, vicious digs and recitations whose sources run from Shakespeare to Beatrix Potter — should shape the play into a sort of acrid miasma, only occasionally pierced by light.
But Mr. Lane acts in fits and starts. When he finds a natural emotional groove, he can be breathtaking. He is genuinely shocking in the scene where breezy banter with his wife abruptly shifts into stormy viciousness.
He finds the compelling competitive rhythms in Butley’s dialogue with the young publisher (Darren Pettie) who is his rival for the domination of Joey. And in the mostly wordless sequences that begin and end “Butley,” Mr. Lane exudes an air of comic frustration and misery (the ratio shifts from the first scene to the last) that reminds you of how fine the line is between farce and tragedy.
Most of the supporting performances have the leadenness of characters being impersonated instead of embodied. But Mr. Ovenden, a British actor making his Broadway debut, smoothly conveys the craven passivity and eagerness to please of a young academic destined to be ruled by mentors.
And the invaluable Dana Ivey once again turns a nominally small role into a production’s emotional touchstone. Ms. Ivey portrays Edna Shaft, a spinster professor in love with Byron’s poetry and alarmed by the Byronic excesses she sees in her students, who could easily have been a pinched, unsavory cartoon.
Yet when Edna talks about randomly looking through her recently completed book on Byron — with each page summoning a specific memory of what she was doing when she wrote it — Ms. Ivey summons a complete landscape of a lonely life. It says much about the imbalance of this production that this briefly exposed vista of solitude speaks more eloquently and devastatingly of Butley’s future than most of what the play’s title character has to offer.
It's a cliché that comedians are, off stage, not the happiest folks on the planet.
Or that they at least have a keener appreciation for the darker aspects of human experience than many of their less-funny peers.
Clichés are, of course, rooted in kernels of truth, which may help explain Nathan Lane's attraction to the character he is playing in the new Broadway revival of Butley, which opened Wednesday at the Booth Theatre.
Ben Butley, the middle-aged English professor at the center of Simon Gray's tart, unsettling play, is a man clearly accustomed to using his wit as a weapon and a shield, a means of conquering lovers and detractors alike while keeping them at a safe emotional distance.
We meet Ben, however, on a day so preposterously disastrous that it defies even his expert resources. In less than 24 hours, he manages to get the heave-ho from his wife, Anne, and his male lover, Joseph, who also happens to be Ben's protégé and office-mate.
Both relationships have been in trouble for some time, and both parties deserve sympathy, and credit, for putting up with Ben as long as they have.
But as Lane plays him, Ben remains a focus of fascination and pity. As the musical-comedy star proved last year during his off-Broadway stint in Terrence McNally'sDedication or the Stuff of Dreams, he can deftly summon the pathos underlying so much humor. Lane shows us the sad clown beneath Ben's exacting and sometimes brutal erudition. His delivery is overzealous at times but never contrived; it's a performance of profound empathy and, ultimately, tenderness.
Under Nicholas Martin's stringent direction, Lane gets nimble support from Julian Ovenden, the handsome, winning young British actor cast as Joseph, and Dana Ivey, who is wry and crisp as a university colleague. Jessica Stone adds another dash of drollness in the smaller role of a student whose lamentable prose becomes fodder for some of Ben's most amusing and merciless barbs.
Darren Pettie is elegantly malevolent as Reg Nuttall, Ben's tall, well-dressed foil and rival for Joseph's affections. And Pamela Gray's take on Ben's long-suffering spouse is elusive but intriguing; her Anne seems at once willful and resigned to never really having what she wants in life.
That sense of resignation lingers through Butley, always lurking just beneath the brightest, sharpest lines. Gray's academics are a conflicted, dissatisfied bunch. But if they don't quite laugh through their tears, at least they give us reason to. Kind of like entertainers do, come to think of it.
The passage of 35 years has dulled neither the sting nor the wit of "Butley." The best known of Simon Gray's plays set in the academic world remains a corrosively clever portrait of a brilliant man with a bankrupted soul. But its sharpness is muted in a production without a double-edged performance by the actor in the title role. Nathan Lane is in many ways a formidable Ben Butley, slashing his way through the caustic wordplay like a nimble swordsman. But in a play in which we should constantly peer past the vitriol into the well of despair it hides, Lane really reveals Butley's painful self-entrapment only in the final moments.
While Lane's range is well proven, it's his smart, sour humor that defines him. But his work here suggests "Butley" is shortchanged by an actor whose lead skill is being funny.
The indelible perf of Alan Bates in the role -- in London, on Broadway and later in Harold Pinter's fine American Film Theater screen version -- is often cited as the intimidating reason this 1971 play is so seldom revived. Charismatic yet also visibly going to seed -- whisky, nicotine and bitter cynicism seemed to seep from his every pore -- Bates managed to swim in bile without being entirely unattractive. We could see the wheels of the character's surgically vicious mind turning as he shot poisonous barbs at wife and lover, student and colleague, frequently wincing from his self-inflicted wounds.
Watching the play now in Nicholas Martin's engrossing but undercharged production, one wonders what an actor with a more haunted quality to back up the verbal dexterity -- Ralph Fiennes or Gabriel Byrne, perhaps -- might have brought to the toothsome part.
Lane's success in the role in Martin's 2003 production at Boston's Huntington Theater Company is the reason the play is back on Broadway. But there's a benign aspect to his Butley. He's too neat and tidy, both physically and psychologically, to fully inhabit the role. Like so many American actors who tackle black-as-tar British humor but are stymied by wanting to stay on the audience's good side, Lane hesitates to fully embrace the savagery of it.
Adopting a generic plummy accent and an air of weary self-deprecation, he's inappropriately cuddly and charming -- a mischievous, clowning sad sack rather than a self-loathing dyspeptic. Where Bates shrugged off the laughs with angry indifference, Lane the showman fishes for them.
As much as we cringe at Butley's laceration of others, it's his self-destruction that gives Gray's play its abrasive texture -- he's not just his own victim, he's his executioner. A scholar who long ago lost all passion for his work, Butley is confronted by the hollowness of his life when, during the course of a single day, his estranged wife, Anne (Pamela Gray), asks for a divorce and his academic protege, Joey (Julian Ovenden), leaves him for another man. While Butley's own book on T.S. Eliot remains stalled, his stodgy colleague Edna (Dana Ivey) is about to be published, and even Anne's new partner, "the most boring man in London," has a book deal.
Butley has become incapable of maintaining any kind of relationship. The people close to him still laugh at his sardonic wit but are fed up with his cruel sense of fun. He quotes nursery rhymes to deflect criticism, his existence a futile one. He can no longer teach, and clearly, his skill at covering his inactivity with fast-talking subterfuge won't work for much longer.
A half-hearted stab at replacing Joey with another malleable young student (Roderick Hill) reveals that Butley no longer even has the will to continue the game: "I don't find you interesting anymore," he says with empty resignation. "I'm too old to play with the likes of you."
The narrowing confines of Butley's world are effectively drawn in Alexander Dodge's set, shifting the college office from basement to attic, its jagged eaves and surrounding blackness appearing to close in on the title character.
Elsewhere in Martin's production, the grasp is uneven. With his acute understanding not only of the importance of words but of silences in mining unspoken subtext, it's significant that Pinter, who was among Gray's key influences, first directed the play. Martin -- and Lane under his direction -- too rarely allow the words to settle and resonate; there's an annoying tendency to fill the pauses with business. The opening, especially, is overly encumbered with physical shtick. It's only when this is out of the way and Butley goes on the attack that Lane begins warming up in the role.
But the entire cast seems unrelaxed, some of them struggling with their accents. The exasperated resolve that should spread tension through Pamela Gray's single scene as Butley's wife is not quite there. As the persistent student who refuses to be dismissed, Jessica Stone is too comically bullish to rattle Butley. And as Joey's new lover, who succeeds in shaking Butley's composure, Darren Pettie has the swaggering physical self-assurance but not the verbal command.
Perhaps because Edna is in a world of her own -- left behind by the sexual revolution and struggling to adapt to a once-predictable academic sphere now in ferment as authority figures begin to be challenged -- Ivey creates a more full-bodied character. Likewise Brit actor Ovenden, whose Joey is an ambitious toady, unexceptional yet not lacking in the intellectual resourcefulness that drew Butley to him in the first place and still harboring affection for his mentor.
Overall, however, the actors never quite get their teeth into the roles, and their inconsistency must be traced back to the director.
Butley famously enters scene one with a lump of cotton wool stuck to a fresh shaving cut on his cheek. His inability to staunch the flow of blood as his life unravels should make the play as devastating as it is acerbically amusing. But in this disappointing production, the pathos surfaces too late to make the wound a deep one.