Also see Suzanne's review of Book of Days
I am sorry to say that the Huntington Theatre's much anticipated production of Butley with Nathan Lane in the starring role delivers emotional sparklers instead of emotional fireworks at this point. Simon Gray's 1971 play was a tour de force for actor Alan Bates who originated the role in London, won a Tony for his performance in 1973 and was immortalized on film as part of the inaugural American Film Theatre series (now available on DVD.)
Lane, with a proven track record as a serious actor long before romping away with Tony Awards for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forumand The Producers, needs to turn this performance up a notch and calibrate it to better suit this 900-seat house. It was sometimes difficult to hear him sitting three quarters of the way back and to the side. The couple next to us who picked up infrared listening devices at intermission was much happier during the second half.
The set designed by Alexander Dodge is a garret office shared by two members of the English department of a college in London University. Modeled after Gray's own office at Queen Mary College where he taught for years, it's impeccably shabby and grimy. Lighting designer David Weiner also has great fun with unflattering overhead fluorescent tubes and several recalcitrant desk lamps.
At one time Butley's refuge from department politics, student malcontent and failed domestic experiments, it offers no escape on this particular day. Nothing - not indifference, not rudeness, not nasty one-upmanship - can stench the flow of bad news that arrives to fuel his middle-aged self-loathing.
The trigger for all this misery is a general reshuffling of domestic relationships. His wife of a few short months (Pamela J. Gray) wants a divorce so she can marry one of his colleagues. His former protégé, best friend and office-mate (Benedick Bates) is intent on pursuing a new relationship with a commercial publisher and football enthusiast (Jake Weber). Once an avid proselytizer of T.S. Eliot, Butley now finds more solace in Beatrix Potter's nursery rhymes.
Nathan Lane and Benedick Bates
The performances by Lane and Bates [Alan Bates' son and a long-time friend of both Lane and Gray] are strangely ambiguous. So much so that I'd decided by the end of the play that Butley and Joey had never been lovers. This morning I stumbled across a 1972 interview with Gray from Plays & Players that enlightened the matter a bit. Gray said he was aware of the audience confusion after he and director Harold Pinter decided to cut a long explanatory scene in which the characters talked about their feelings for each other. He goes on to say that the homosexuality wasn't at the heart of the relationship, anyway, and described in some detail how they had a "kind of relation [that is] an extremely common one in English life."
And that is the crux of the problem with this play: it's quintessential "Englishness." Not only the special nature of this relationship, but also subtle but important differences between the English and American education systems and the pervasiveness of the class system in England serve to diffuse our understanding. We don't 'get' some of what makes these people tick, the insidious little things that drive Butley and give him endless ammunition for his sparring with everyone else.
Even the fine performances from the rest of the cast, the tight direction of Nicholas Martin, and a Nathan Lane wound a little tighter can't bridge those gaps and deliver the intended full punch of Butley.
Butley at the Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue in Boston now through November 30th. Performances are Tuesday - Thursday at 7:30pm (excluding November 4); Friday and Saturday at 8pm; Sundays at 7pm (excluding November 16 and 23); Saturday and Sunday at 2pm and Wednesday at 2pm (November 5 and 19 only). Tickets range from $14 to $64. For tickets or information, call the Huntington Box Office at 617-266-0800 or visit their website at www.huntingtontheatre.org.
The Huntington has added two new regular Special Events for this year. Both of these programs are free of charge with the purchase of a ticket to the designated performance.
Also of interest are the next two sessions of a panel series presented by Boston University's College of Fine Arts called American Theatre at a Crossroad. They are on Monday nights at 7:30 at the B.U. Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue. For ticket information call the Box Office at 617 266-0800.