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.