Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Butley"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


by Simon Gray
directed by Nicholas Martin

Ben Butley … Nathan Lane
Joseph Keyston … Benedick Bates
Miss Heasman … Marguerite Stimpson
Edna Shaft … Angela Thornton
Anne Butley … Pamela J. Gray
Reg Nuttall … Jake Weber
Mr. Gardner … Austin Lysy
Students … Allison Clear; Joe Lanza

Understudy to Mr. Lane … Jeremiah Kissel

The Huntington Theatre Company has finally unwrapped its much-anticipated production of Simon Gray’s BUTLEY starring Broadway’s reigning clown Nathan Lane in the title role --- thanks to Mr. Lane, it’s a grand night at the theatre --- yet this delightful present points to a troubling future: will the growing roster of “name” actors coming to Boston result in a flood that will sweep more and more local actors off their own stages?

BUTLEY is my first encounter with Mr. Lane as a stage performer --- I had known him only through his film and television roles, his hosting the Tony Awards and his (in)famous New York Times interview where he left precious little hanging in his closet --- here, he has chosen a vehicle tailor-made for his cheery/frantic persona: at heart, Mr. Lane is a vaudevillian and more or less so is Ben Butley, a self-destructing English professor whose wife (Anne) and lover (Joey) leave him on the same afternoon for other men (it’s one of those tragicomic days, you see); though submerging himself in drink and despair, Butley plays his own mocking ringmaster to the end. Alan Bates (charming fellow; charming actor) created the role over thirty years ago; his Tony Award-winning performance was preserved on film --- viewed today, it’s a sour turn --- Mr. Lane makes his Butley a predictably loveable (though far from seedy) mess: here’s a fellow you can’t help liking but still must escape from lest he cunningly drag you down with him. Mr. Bates’ Butley goes round and round in nasty circles; Mr. Lane subtly, steadily turns the character’s rants, taunts and one-upmanships into a growing cry from a sealed-up heart; this Butley doesn’t want to be abandoned and will do anything to hold onto his loved ones (who are also his audience) even if it means smashing them apart in the process (you’ll find yourself secretly rooting for him when he turns on a rival in a bravura, drunken monologue). Most importantly, Mr. Lane gives us a man who still dazzles even in his cups, showing what Anne and Joey saw in Butley in the first place and how their leaving him is both a wise move and a foolish one --- Anne plans to marry the dullest man in town; Joey is moving in with a controlling butch bastard (in an interesting twist, Butley left Joey for Anne in the past, not the traditional other way around). According to the Boston Globe, this production, briskly directed by Nicholas Martin and scaled down to human size by Alexander Dodge, is not bound for Broadway and so, fellow Bostonians, for these next few weeks, Mr. Lane and his creation are ours, all ours.

The supporting ensemble, which includes Benedick Bates (son of Alan) as Joey, is composed of imported actors; in a recent Boston Tab article that revealed how talented local actors are repeatedly passed over in favor of New York ones, Mr. Martin stated: “If you’re going to do a play with Nathan Lane, you have to be very careful to choose actors who can share the stage with an actor of his power … It’s one thing to appear in a small theater and do a good job, and it’s another thing to be in a 900-seat house sharing the stage with Nathan Lane.” (Does that mean Mr. Lane would flounder in a SpeakEasy or Zeitgeist show at the BCA?) For the record, BUTLEY’s ensemble is fine but no better than many local actors who could step into their shoes (there’s some expert banter between the Messrs. Lane and Bates and Mr. Lane and Pamela J. Gray (the Anne) but little chemistry). Jeremiah Kissel, one of Boston’s best, has been assigned as Mr. Lane’s understudy; if Mr. Kissel is worthy of Mr. Lane, he is worthy of Butley himself --- but would Mr. Kissel’s own sterling reputation cause the general public to flock to Mr. Gray’s talky, talky play? I have my doubts: Mr. Kissel is merely (!) a fine actor; Mr. Lane is a must-see Event --- and now, thank you, I have seen him.

May Mr. Lane return to Boston in the future --- not as a Star, but as a fellow actor (would he ever consider a season of repertory?) --- and that he insist upon working with what the city has to offer; some cross-pollination would hurt few and benefit many. Lacking permanent companies, the Huntington and other theatres are justified in their importing policies, but for BUTLEY the Huntington has openly courted Broadway and other companies may follow suit especially if the general public will gladly pay to see Stars on their own turf. In less than a decade, Boston theatre has bounced back with a vengeance, not in its role of Try-Out Town but as a thriving cultural center with its own look and feel --- and much of what I have seen is golden --- will local artists be reduced to carrying spears whenever a Star comes to town or simply head for New York themselves? To quote once again from the Boston Tab, “…if resident theaters don’t support the local acting community, there won’t be a local acting community.” For its producers to start passing over the glories in their own back yard for a crack at getting a Name up in lights is to sell a collective soul for a mess of wattage.

"Butley" (24 October-30 November)
264 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 266-0800

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide