On stage for the play’s entirety — more than two hours — the title character in Simon Gray’s “Butley” is a horrid but fascinating man. Alan Bates captivated the crowds with his energy, charm and sexiness when he introduced the character in 1971, first in London and later on Broadway. He has been indelibly linked with the role ever since — few have taken a crack at it in a major production. But now, at Boston’s Huntington Theater, Nathan Lane has assumed it, by eminent domain if not by destiny. Lane’s career has been perfect preparation for this role. The playfulness laced with a whiff of bitters, the cynicism softened with a touch of the poet, the mimicry, the mockery, even the musical-comedy turns — all are all put to brilliant use. Under the sure direction of Nicholas Martin, this is the performance of a lifetime, and one that is sure to travel if there’s a Broadway god.
Ben Butley is a British college lecturer whose life is about to be crushed by the professional, sexual and marital mess he has created. What’s trouble for him is fun for us, however. Fueled by booze, cigarettes and a carefree wit, Butley lashes out at a world that’s closing in on him. His downfall occasions a tutorial in great acting from Lane, who makes the demanding role look easy.
Gray’s play is a deft piece of work, too. The playwright scatters stories, jokes and details about as randomly and delightfully as Butley tosses off banana peels, ashes and insults. But Gray knows exactly where everything goes in this classically constructed creation. And when he — and Lane — get to their final destination, the effect is stunning. All the dazzling wordplay — the nursery rhymes, T.S. Eliot quotations, the epigrams — prove to be no defense against the hard realties of human relationships. While the people in his life are able to make a break, move on or start over, Butley can’t get beyond picking at his wounds. The supremely self-aware Butley is finally left in solitude.
But Butley needs worthy challengers, and in some cases here, he simply faces straight men and women. While there might be a sense of rightness in the casting of Bates’ son Benedick in the role of Joey, Butley’s former student-turned-lover-turned-turncoat, it turns out to be the wrong choice. Joey may be a creep, a toady and a coward, but he is not a bore.
Pamela J. Gray plays Butley’s wife, who finally tires of his fun and games. She has a smart grace about her, but she lacks the clear coldness to make her big scene a coup de grace that — at least temporarily — leaves her husband speechless. Angela Thornton is fine but not quite formidable enough as Butley’s colleague.
Jake Weber gets it perfect, however, as Joey’s new, mature lover, who finally brings Butley down literally and figuratively. Austin Lysy and Marguerite Stimpson are solid as a new generation of students that unnerves the nimble professor.
The production, nicely designed and executed, is not only a triumph for Lane but for Gray, too. Martin’s staging places a spotlight on a neglected gem that makes one hungry for the rest of Gray’s quartet of works set in the academic and publishing worlds: “Otherwise Engaged,” “The Common Pursuit” and “Quartermaine’s Terms.”