note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Beverly Creasey
BUTLEY is one of my favorite plays. Having seen Alan Bates in it twice (stage and film) I must admit I wondered if Nathan Lane could fill Bates’ shoes. He does but he trades in Bates’ wingtips for a pair of oversized clown shoes. (Playwright Simon Gray has been collaborating with director Nicholas Martin on the Huntington production, which explains the shtick that now opens the play, banana peel and all.) Lane is, after all, the grand master of shtick.
Butley is a down on his luck English professor with a razor sharp mind which he uses to lacerate any individual he finds wanting. And Butley finds everyone wanting. He wields his wit like a samurai sword, slicing everyone down to size. He’s quick, he’s mercurial and he’s delicious to watch as he wages his battle of words. (Of course we in the audience are extremely grateful not to be the brunt of the assault.)
Gray’s play might well be subtitled “Butley’s Bad Day” because in the course of one day very bad news follows on the heels of already bad news, gravely testing Butley’s ability to land on his feet. His meltdown is the stuff of great theater, brilliantly handled by Bates, less so by Lane.
I know comparisons are odious so suffice it to say, and my companion for BUTLEY insists on my saying this, as she sees it as the strength of the Huntington production, Lane is more of an everyman. Where Bates’ Butley traded on his elegance and sophistication, Lane elevates ‘petulance’ and joyous deprecation to an art.
She and I have been debating the point all week but on one thing we agree. Jake Weber, as the “other man” who steals away Butley’s roommate, sets the stage on fire as he spars with the verbally nimble professor. Weber is perfection as Butley’s nemesis, his superior in everything Butley is not. He’s buff. He’s physically aggressive. He’s successful in business and he’s desired.
The Huntington production is unique in a lovely way. Alan Bates’ son, Benedick Bates, is in the production, playing Butley’s charming office mate and former lover, whose imminent loss to the handsome Weber, Butley is about to feel.
Alexander Dodge’s seedy university digs have books spilling off the shelves and shelves piled to the rafters. An old washbasin sits beneath a leaking sink as a peeling poster of Butley’s beloved T.S. Eliot looks down on his cluttered desk. Gray’s inspired notion of tragedy is Butley’s inability to muster the famous British “wit in the face of adversity” when his ship goes down…but what a voyage it is for us.