A Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Butley"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Larry Stark


by Simon Gray
Directed by Nicholas Martin

Scenery Design by Alexander Dodge
Lighting Design by David Weiner
Costume Design by Michael Krass
Sound Design by Kurt Kellenberger
Production Stage Manager Stephen M. Kaus
Stage Manager David H. Lurie

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

This is not a REVIEW of "Butley"; it is an incoherent concatenation of musings and opinions about the show. If you expect to see the show, stop reading Now. If, however, like most of the readers of The Boston GLOBE, you never intended to See the actual show but want to read opinions you need never test with experience, here are mine. I will, however, in this lead-paragraph for The Mirror's teaser-page, throw out two facts: 1) I did indeed see Simon Gray's play in London back in the first half of the '70s and liked it immensely. 2) The person who directed that production was Harold Pinter.

The Huntington is a big theatre. With the exception of The Majestic, it is the only "major theatre" in Boston with a balcony --- Beatrice Hereford's Vokes Playhouse being a wry suburban exception as well. Technically, that makes demands. The "Huntington Theatre Company" is not a company of actors; it is a "Regional" theatre based in Boston --- an incredibly successful one. (There are two rules of thumb about the success of a local theatrical company: count the list of financial contributors (in this case, four and a half pages of very small type) and count the lighting-instruments. The Huntington for this production had 130 lights hung in the auditorium in front of the curtain alone.) In addition, The Huntington has a huge following of well-heeled subscribers (average age I'd guess about 40-50) which last night jammed both floors of the theatre and responded to Simon Gray's play and Nathan Lane's reputation by rising to their feet during the curtain-calls.

An operation of this size and stature must give all those enthusiastic people something Special for their money --- a "Hedda" headed for Broadway; a Broadway star moving from the big Colonial to the big Huntington to drag Broadway in Boston's audience away from Boylston & Tremont Streets.

Nathan Lane could have done any play at all at The Huntington --- could, as the cliche goes, done a staged-reading of the (Manhattan) Telephone Book --- and attracted a sold-out standing-O audience. The fact that he lent his name to a contemporary tragedy with no happy ending revolving around the bitchy backbiting of three British queers meant that this beautiful, moving script would play to no empty seats. The fact that he probably took a cut in pay to do so only adds to his stature in my eyes. In a year that the modest Rough & Tumble Theatre had to send out begging letters to stay alive, Nicky Martin will find the rest of his season comfortably funded by Lane's generosity.

Given all that, however, any discussion of the quality of the show is irrelevant.

But, what the hell, here are a few very personal opinions. [WARNING: from here on I will have to reveal things that should Surprise a paying audience. Read on If you Have Seen The Play; then, by all means, argue with me. But See The Play First, please!]
Last night I was surprised when, late in the second act, Benedick Bates playing Butley's office-mate and lover admitted that he had lied about the parents of his new homosexual partner. "Instead of a butcher, his dad's a maths teacher," he admits. And in his final self-justification he admits his new Reg (Jake Weber) is inferior stuff but "I had to get away from you Ben, before I became you."

What's working here?
Well, much earlier, when Joey gave Reg that boorishly common set of parents, the conversation was their one stretch of convivial camaradery --- cutting them to the bone and laughing at the blood-flow. At the end, Joey is simply substituting one autocratic father-figure for another, willingly accepting Reg's new personality-makeover for Ben's old one. Joey is an eager masochist.

And Ben is a "Top" --- emotionally if not physically. He spends the first half of the first act torturing Joey unmercifully, blocking his attempted exits, refusing him any preparation for the afternoon's lecture, bedevilling him for ignoring this old lover for a new one, and scoffing at any pretenses at serious emotional or intellectual commitments in anyone at all. He is an equal-opportunity mysogynist,

As a teacher, Ben picks his apple-polishing pets and thinks all others are irrelevent cattle deservedly doomed to destruction and not worth his precious time except for the fun of torturing them. A decent teacher could find kinder ways of pointing out student inadequacies; Butley enjoys sending them away in tears. He may well be the wittily rambunctious critical genius he seems, but professionally, personally and emotionally he has found everyone around him wanting, and "justly" punished them for wasting his time.

Any wonder the play finds him, at last, totally alone with a bottle in his fist?

As an experienced professional English teacher his mind is cluttered with literary experience that allows him to allude and quote and mis-quote and paraphrase --- but there is ambiguity in his odd fascination with Beatrix Potter. He gives people the names of Potter's characters, quotes lengthily extempore, and more than once dives into nursery-sized volumes. Is this devotee of Eliot putting everyone on a la "The Pooh Perplex"? Does he respect the craft and see something there that everyone misses? or is he using her as Linus did his reassuring blanket? Any of these would be valid choices. I don't think Nathan Lane even noticed there was a choice to be made.

But the true puzzle in this production is --- why didn't Nicholas Martin Ask him to make a choice? Is he so in touch with that broad Broadway-brainwashed Huntington audience as to conclude they must never be asked to think? Is the famous name (and face!) on the markee it's own reward? If Lane skates over the surface of Simon Gray's play, if the other actors on stage carefully say their lines without ever building characters for themselves, is this all a tribute to Martin's crafty contempt for the audience's minds?

Is it enough that Boston's only local theatre with a full Balcony can give us what Boston In Broadway does? Shouldn't a good Regional Theatrical Company give this city what B-in-B will not give us --- a non-Musical play that could make the Downtown Barns look anemic in comparison?

I am going tonight to the BCA to see "The Silent Movie Play" in the Leland Center performed by The Rough & Tumble Theatre (who charge $10 per seat). Tomorrow I'll tell you how many lights they use --- but if it's more than 13 I'll be very surprised.

"Butley" (till 30 November)
264 Huntington Ave., BOSTON MA
1(617) 266-0800

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide