Butley by Simon Gray. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Scenic design by Alexander Dodge. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by David Weiner. Sound design by John Gromada. Wig & hair design by David Brian Brown. Cast: Nathan Lane, with Julian Ovenden, Pamela Gray, Roderick Hill, Darren Pettie, Jessica Stone, and Dana Ivey.
Nathan Lane can't help but make any bad day better. But while he's enlivened any number of plays and musicals in New York over the last 25 years, you sometimes wish our greatest living clown could once in a while turn off that ability. And when Lane lands in a show like Butley, the revival of which just opened at the Booth, you're reminded of just how necessary that can be.
Written by Simon Gray and first produced in London in 1971, Butley is one of the contemporary stage's richest and most detailed character studies. It focuses on Ben Butley, an English professor at a fictional London university, whose wife has already left him and whose colleague-roommate-former student-boyfriend is about to leave him for another man Ben can't stand. As his life spirals down the drain, and the façades he's erected around himself crumble, what can Ben do but watch helplessly?
What indeed. That's the question on which Butley revolves, and what the actor playing him must reconcile early and reconsider numerous times during the two-hour-plus evening. For Alan Bates, who originated Ben in London, on Broadway in 1972, and in the 1974 film version, the answer was a superhuman determination to glue back together the pieces cracking left and right, in self-aware, futile defiance of encroaching despair.
That kind of strength is not Lane's forte. He excels at the sideways or roundabout approaches that are halfway finished before you even notice they've begun, the ones that are loaded down with laughs even while wearing a (somewhat) straight face. A brilliant comedian who earned Tonys for starring roles in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Producers that required oversized outlandishness, Lane could make this approach work if anyone alive can.
He's had three years since this production's original engagement at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company to work out the kinks. As I didn't see this Butley then, I can't say that Lane hasn't improved. But plenty of kinks, likely of the unironable variety, remain.
The problem is that Lane's grimacing comic sense is of the defense-mechanism variety, the "laugh at yourself before others do" tactic that's long been the favored body armor of youngsters smarter than the bullies terrorizing them. While this has worked for Lane in roles both broad (his Tony winners) and compact (his glass-delicate turn as a children's theatre impresario in last season's Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams), it's a poor fit for Ben: His acid wit and acrid condemnations of everyone from his boyfriend and his wife to his circling students are weapons, the last remaining in a once-impressive arsenal that's been deployed frequently enough to reduce a unique mind to a simpering self-parody.
As Lane plays Ben, you never see his claws draw blood or grasping hold of the rocky clifftop to prevent a 50-foot freefall. Instead, they're perfectly polished display pieces that are brought out for a specific purpose - namely, knocking Gray's choice one-liners to the back of the mezzanine - and then quickly stowed again, as if to encourage the audience to forget their existence. But as Lane makes almost no connection between Butley the comedian and Butley the dissolver, even those jokes tend toward transparency before long.
And once you can see clear through Ben, there's little left to Butley. Though there are six secondary characters, they're essentially animated window dressing existing only to cause Ben to reveal new facets of himself. This isn't to say they're poorly crafted: To succeed at building up - and tearing down - the central character, they must convince, and as written and acted here, they always do.
The closest to a fully realized person on the page is Ben's boyfriend, Joseph, played by Julian Ovenden, who's all but officially declared his independence and now wants to prove that the ebb and flow of his life are not governed by Ben's gravitational pull. But as Ovenden plays him, Joseph shows the tiniest trace of concern and regret beneath his pervading annoyance at Ben's increasingly desperate antics. This gives Joseph a certain air of reality that makes him identifiable as a victim of Ben's crusade who is now trying to recover.
This is enough to trip up Lane, who needs all the help he can get to stay resolutely on Ben's tragic course, but can't with a Joseph who lets him under his skin. The other actors give Lane less to work with, and thus give him more: A particularly persuasive student (Jessica Stone), another, flightier teacher (Dana Ivey), Joseph's new boyfriend and Ben's walking headache (Darren Pettie), and Ben's wife Anne (Pamela Gray) force Lane's Ben to fight to establish and maintain control, and Lane is the better for it.
Ivey's quirky, brittle pathos, which transforms her character into a kind of convoluted performance artist, is a more refined version of what Lane is playing, and succeeds better at conveying the idea of living one's life (or dying one's death) as playing a role. Gray, who starred opposite Lane in Boston, delivers exactly the opposite as Anne, in a clipped, commanding performance that uses Ben's manipulative techniques to further deflate him.
But at this point in Ben's life, no one should be able to conquer him: He's already defeated. While director Nicholas Martin's staging is efficient, and Alexander Dodge's musty, academic-tomb office set is the proper locale for embalming, the proceedings never have the urgency they need to feel like the waning moments of a death watch.
Lane won't let them. While he masterfully prevents even a single joke from slipping by under his radar, he doesn't convey the bitter inner humor that is Ben's last, best hope for salvaging his existence. It's useless, of course, and he knows that - that's what makes Ben so fascinating and frustrating for actors and audiences alike. But for the larger-than-life Lane, a man with no life of his own just isn't much of a playground.