nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 2, 2006
Butley is terrific: I wish it would signify something to say that Butley is the finest drama on Broadway right now, but Butley is pretty much the only drama on Broadway right now, unless you count shows that are still in previews. What I really mean is that it's an exemplar of the kind of dramas that used to flourish on Broadway but now barely flourish anywhere—a play of ideas and language; of human comedy and tragedy and, ultimately, of great humanity. It is the occasion for the strongest and most nuanced performance I've ever had the pleasure of seeing Nathan Lane give; staged so brilliantly by Nicholas Martin that you almost forget there's a director at all, it boasts a splendid ensemble of well-matched actors and a design that's entirely appropriate without ever calling attention to itself. This is what Broadway can do at its very best.
The play is by British writer Simon Gray and it dates back to 1971, though it doesn't feel one iota dated. It's about an English professor at a London college named Ben Butley, and it charts a particularly awful day in his life—the day when his estranged wife tells him she's getting married to another chap and his live-in boyfriend tells him he's moving in with still another chap; to add insult to injury, these two other chaps are friends and have known about Butley's impending doom long before he finds out.
Now it's entirely to Gray and Lane's credit that, though Butley is indeed a repellant and difficult fellow who, on some level, deserves the treatment he's getting, we nevertheless feel—well, maybe not sorry for him, but certainly empathetic; his plight moves us, because it really is the stuff of classical tragedy. Butley has as much hubris as Oedipus, and worse, a good deal more self-knowledge: the play is finally about a man confronting a long, malingering adolescence and facing up to a delayed adulthood. It could be about despairing inertia, but at least as Lane interprets it, it's about moving on, even when the direction of that movement is different from where one was hoping, or expecting, to end up.
The journey, though, is actually quite fun: Butley amuses himself by making fun of and/or trouble for those who he believes are beneath him, which amounts to pretty much everybody. The victims that we get to meet include his wife Anne, who is learning to hold her own with her caustic husband, and his lover Joseph, once his student and now seeking tenure as a fellow faculty member, who cannot; also Joseph's new boyfriend Reg, a conservative, closeted, condescending man; two students, Miss Heasman and Mr. Gardner; and fellow professor Edna Shaft, who is perhaps Butley's favorite object of derision until he discovers (or remembers) that she's worthy of his admiration.
These characters occasion memorable, vivid performances. The standout is Dana Ivey, stout and proud and difficult in the starchiest and most unflattering patterned wool suit imaginable (costumes are by Ann Roth); of course Edna is the showiest of the supporting roles, and she's tailor-made for the estimable Ivey, who is utterly in her element. But Julian Ovenden must not be overlooked: his Joseph is believably Butley's friend and lover, striving for an equality that will never be granted him. Though still unformed, he's never inconsequential or frivolous; but he is giddily immature in places, and we understand what Butley will lose when Joseph exits his life.
Jessica Stone and Roderick Hill make the most of near-cameos as two very different but very unlikable students; Darren Pettie is appropriately abrasive and self-assured as Reg. As the soon-to-be-ex Mrs. Butley, Pamela Gray provides unexpected depth; I wasn't expecting to like or sympathize with her, but I found myself doing just that.
Anchoring the show in a tour de force, marathon performance is Lane, of course, brilliantly in command of his instrument in what is surely one of the most demanding roles of his career. Lane's Butley is funny but organically so; this is a characterization built carefully from the inside out, and the jokes arise out of a needy personality rather than just a need to make us laugh. Lane also finds the sadness in this man, and the intelligence, and—we hope not too late!—the wisdom. I was moved greatly by Lane here, and found, as I think many in the audience will, much to identify with and much to ponder in a portrayal that cuts a larger-than-life figure to exactly life-size.
In the end, rotter that he is, Ben Butley is authentically the hero of this piece, and it seems stunningly fitting that the two people he's lost at the play's end are attaching themselves to significantly lesser men while he may just be able to find the self-sufficiency he needs to push his life forward. I don't know if Gray originally intended his protagonist to be a symbol of hope for the foolishly entrenched middle-aged, but Lane and Martin have made him exactly that in this exquisite revival of this fine, insightful drama.