The first intimation that something's off with the Huntington's much-touted revival of Simon Gray's seminal academic comedy of bad manners, "Butley" is the photo on the program cover. Their star, Broadway musical theatre icon Nathan Lane, cigarette drooping from his mouth, stares out like a sad puppy. The monstrous Ben Butley's been reduced to a house pet.
The actual production suffers from the same pedestrian imagination. Director Nicholas Martin, currently the Norma Jean Calderwood Artistic Director of the company, shows his usual flair for the obvious, making this 30 some year old script seem more dated than it is. What was daring in 1971 is the stuff of soap opera today, though perhaps not on the old networks quite yet. While this thoroughly professional cast is probably capable of breathing life into this bleak collection of japes and faux literary references, most of the actors seem to be going through their paces, smoothly, competently, and without making contact with each other or the audience.
Lane's putative co-star, Benedick Bates, son of Alan Bates, whose seductive portrayal of this repellent professor launched a career of diminishing returns, plays Joey Keyston, Butley's on-again off-again lover, former student, and current office mate in an entirely opaque manner. This may be an attempt to make the character's second act betrayals more significant. The general impression however is of a spineless junior sleepwalking through life, a habit he might have caught from his mentor. In any case he gets little to respond to from Lane, who seems more interested in seducing the audience with starpower than connecting with the other characters onstage.
It speaks volumes to the distant nature of this show that the most interesting and sympathetic character is Jake Weber's Reg Nutall, Joey's current lover, who appears only in the pivotal scene of the second act. Weber plays the part as tall, blond, stylish, and intelligent, a complete contrast to Lane's riffs on Butley's eccentric brilliance, which makes his acceptance of Joey's very conditional affection quite believable. Veteran character actress Angela Thornton even gets a moment or two out of the stock role of Edna Shaft, a spinsterly Byron scholar. Her apparent genuine interaction with their students, however annoying, makes Butley's laziness seem intolerable rather than quaint.
It's not that Lane couldn't do this part which he's coveted for years. But he'd need a director willing to dig into the psyche of this complex character rather than allow the actor to resort to shtick, even routines approved by the original author. And perhaps less physical realism in the set. Alexander Dodge and the large crew in the B.U. shop are quite capable of realizing far too much detail without actually participating in the play. Two desks, some chairs, a picture of T.S. Eliot, and a doorframe would have sufficed, though all that stuff onstage gives one something to do when the action on the stage becomes dull and repetitive.
The rest of the cast, Pamela J. Gray as Ann Butley, who's divorcing BB to marry "the most boring man in London" whose book Reg turns out to be publishing, does about as much with her part as is actually there. Gray doesn't give any of the female characters much to work with. Marguerite Stimpson, an ART grad plays the sophomoric essayist ridiculed to no point at the opening of the second act. And Austin Lysy, with an excess of experience including Williamstown is Gardner, Miss Shaft's hat-wearing bane in the play's Eliot-drenched final scene. The part could have been played by a B.U. student, as were the two walk-ons, Allison Clear and Joe Lanza whose bios didn't make the program. It's been whispered that this production was intended eventually for Broadway; next summer in the Berkshire's seems more likely. And if Lane's not available, his local understudy, multi-award winning actor Jerimiah Kissel could do the part and give any cast, including many who've already worked for the Huntington, a run for its money and the audience full value from the play, as dated as it's become.
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