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Butley, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review

I'm a one-woman man, and I've had mine, thank God. — Ben Butley, who gets most of the witticisms in the tragi-comedy in which he's the title character. About his one-woman relationship, he declares that the only thing he'll miss is " the sex and the violence."

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Nathan Lane & Julian Ovenden in Butley
Nathan Lane & Julian Ovenden in Butley (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Stories about British schoolmasters big on intellect, wit and charisma are as much a part of British lore as London fogs and tea time. Last season Alan Bennett reinvigoratd the schoolroom genre with a brilliantly scripted, staged and acted play called The History Boys (Review). The actors weren't exactly household names and the setting was true Brit, but the play had something to say to which audiences on either side of the pond could relate. Which brings us to the revival of Butley, Simon Gray's 1972 play about a famously misanthropic professor who's having his day of reckoning,

The question about the revival of is not whether Nathan Lane's Ben Butley is a poor second to Alan Bates' stage and screen version. Lane is quite good, quite rightly making no attempt to clone the famous Bates interpretation, but to invest the role with his own unique and considerable talents as an actor skilled at delivering lengthy dialogue, snappy one-liners, as well as conveying emotion without saying a word. And for all his association with musicals, he's no stranger to straight roles and, more specifically, playing academics as he did in Gray's much better play, Common Pursuit.

And so, what's wrong with this revival is not Lane but that Butley is dated despite being a still clever and devastating depiction of one man's disintegration that's filled to the brim with incisive bon mots. While the characters' basic weaknesses (Butley's self-indulgence, his young lover's taking the easy path to success via his most current mentor) are interesting even the well-made play style is tinged with a somewhat musty flavor. It's a style that once made it credible for a man's failures as a scholar, teacher, husband and lover to all come to haunt him in a single day, sort of like Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" but minus a happy ending.

It is precisely because Butley, besides showing its age really achieved renown mostly because of one actor's performance, that any revival needs a big name above the title to gain box office altitude once again. To prove my point, Lane's entrance is met with applause. He enters coughing, dishevelled, a piece of tissue stuck to his chin from a cut suffered while shaving with his wife's razor, a leftover from his just collapsed marriage — and he's got the audience in his palm. It's Lane who is still filling the Booth Theatre despite some devastating first night reviews not the play's cleverness, even the crafty tie between Ben Butley's downhill trajectory and Alfred J. Prufrock, the title character descending into his own Hell in a famous poem by the man whose work is Butley's specialty, T.S. Eliot

I never saw Alan Bates do this role live and even if I did, my memory would be more an impression of what I took away rather than a clear and detailed enough recollection to make a valid comparison between the Bates and Lane approach to the role. I did see the film but comparing a live and filmed version of a play is an apples and oranges proposition. That said, Lane impressively makes the most of the play's humor, building this conflicted man's growing anger and despair as each person entering his London University office brings another blow to his ego and equilibrium: Joe (Julian Ovenden), his former student and current office mate and lover, has switched his affection to Reg (Darren Pettie) a successful publisher. Edna (Dana Ivey), an easily flustered colleague and Byron specialist, long the butt of his disdainful jokes, is having her book about Byron published while Butley's Eliot book is hopelessly stalled. Butley's wife Anne (Pamela Gray), arrives to plead with him not to make difficulties over her leaving him so that she can marry another academic who, though described as "the dullest man in London" is also having a book published —and to add indignity to injury, Reg is the publisher.

From the physical shtick at the beginning and the running visual joke about a desk lamp that, like everything else in his life that no longer works, Lane creates his own unhappy misanthrope with a full range of emotional shifts that make him by turns likeable, hateful and pitiful. He also does a very creditable British accent, not to mention a hilarious Scottish bit. Nicholas Martin has surrounded him with an excellent supporting cast, especially Jessica Stone who last worked with Lane in a revival of The Odd Couple and now once again has a scene stealing turn as one of the students he has come to avoid and insult rather than nurture. No complaints either about the physical look of the production.

So, ultimately, if you find yourself more bored than buoyed by this revival, it's the play not the players. And it should be noted, that the second act is considerably better than the first so don't give in to the temptation to walk out at intermission.

Playwright: Simon Gray
Director: Nicholas Martin.
Cast: WITH: Nathan Lane (Ben Butley), Julian Ovenden (Joseph Keyston), Dana Ivey (Edna Shaft), Pamela Gray (Anne Butley), Roderick Hill (Mr. Gardner), Darren Pettie (Reg Nuttall) and Jessica Stone (Miss Heasman).
Sets: Alexander Dodge
Costumes: Ann Roth
Lights: David Weiner
Sound: John Gromada
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours with intermission
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street)
From October 5, 2006 to January 14, 2007; opening October 26, 2006

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 1st performance
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