Nathan Lane in Butley(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Nathan Lane in Butley
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Ben Butley, a prickly lecturer in English at a fictional British college, is having what could only be termed a horrendous day. His estranged wife turns up at his hovel of an office (Alexander Dodge's set reads as overly spacious and grand) to announce that she wants a divorce in order to marry a friend of theirs, whom Butley decries as "the biggest bore in London." What's worse, Butley's longterm male lover-officemate-mentee, Joey, is showing signs of restlessness as well. With his world collapsing about him, Butley becomes a human wrecking ball.

Rarely performed since Alan Bates's tour de force West End and Broadway renditions of 1971-72, Simon Gray's Butley holds up astoundingly well, even though the term "gay" had yet to come into common parlance when the show was written. (In hurling epithets at Joey's new companion, Butley resorts to such slurs -- since reclamated -- as "fairy" and "queer.") If the play is not often produced, that's probably for want of a sufficiently charismatic leading man. Alas, all hoopla aside, Nathan Lane is not that person -- at least not yet.

As demonstrated in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of Butley, Lane has a good grasp of the oratorical pyrotechnics required by the role, including diverse accents used for purposes of deceit and mockery. His delivery, however, is high-pitched and pinched, and many of his lines -- especially those he races through -- never quite make it to the nether rows of the relatively small theater. Neither do the semaphores of his woebegone eyebrows. Without these signals or much else in the way of physical comedy, what we see is a wound-up, cranky little man in a shabby suit. We're left to wonder: How did this male termagant, this slovenly, nattering, petty despot, ever manage to snare one attractive partner let alone two at the same time?

Though bland on the surface, Benedick Bates (Alan's son, in a nice casting coup) acquits himself well as Butley's conflict-averse protégé; he's convincing as a toady and later, when the script allows, effective as a worm belatedly turning. Among the students that Butley does his best to deflect, Marguerite Stimpson makes a perfect priss. Austin Lysy, playing the "plumed youth" Butley eyes as Joey's possible successor, recites passages from Eliot in temptingly lucious tones. Angela Thornton lacks color and definition in the role of Edna Shaft (originated by Jessica Tandy), a by-the-book academic whose dry devotion to Byron is meant to drive Butley up the wall. "Bloody woman," he brands her as he does his wife of one year, stylishly played by Pamela J. Gray. Why such venom when these two appear utterly unobjectionable?

Only one person ultimately manages to earn Butley's respect -- and ours, too, because there's a sense of calm control the minute he takes the stage. Jake Weber is masterful as Reg, the publisher who has ousted Butley in claiming Joey's affection and allegiance. Sure, he's a philistine (Butley's reaction to his lineup of forthcoming titles is priceless) and something of a poseur (to what degree is an amusing plot point). Still, he has some kind of purchase on honor and decency -- qualities that Butley not only lacks but contemns.

Though the play is packed with Wildean bon mots, its viability ultimately hinges on Butley's likeability; there has to be at least an iota of that quality but it's lacking in this production, directed by the Huntington's artistic director, Nicholas Martin. A more antic production would help to offset the inherent dreariness of the situation, in which love (presumably) and ambition have gone pathetically awry. There's an odd disconnect at work here: One gets the sense that Lane has not yet fully given himself to the role. Amidst a brushfire of free-floating irritation, not a scintilla of perceptible sexual heat passes between Butley and his beloveds. Perhaps Lane is still warming up.