Nathan Lane and Julian Ovenden in Butley
(© Joan Marcus)
Nathan Lane and Julian Ovenden in Butley
(© Joan Marcus)
The line between anger and rage is difficult to pinpoint, but it's a line that Nathan Lane doesn't cross at any time in the acclaimed production of Butley that Nicholas Martin has brought to Broadway from Boston's Huntington Theatre after a three-year delay. The step is crucial, since it's rage -- fury, even -- that drives Simon Gray's play. The white heat of frustrated brilliance and self-loathing is the fuel that moves Butley to the level of shocking character study. If this ingredient is absent, the play impresses as no more than a clever but redundant look at a puzzlingly nasty man. That's nothing to sneeze at, but it's also not a full realization of Gray's intentions.

Lane, who arrives dyspeptic and coughing on Alexander Dodge's version of a university instructor's messy office, has just about every other requirement for the non-stop role. Physically, he fits the bill head to toe. His heavy, drooping figure, swaddled in a suit that looks slept in, immediately suggests surrender. (Did costume designer Ann Roth find his soiled ensemble in a charity bin?) Lane's fleshy face is the flushed red of the alcoholic that Butley decidedly is; he continually pours whiskey for himself and, at one point, throws an empty bottle into a desk drawer only to hear it clank against several other empties.

Ben Butley is a London University teacher who knows his field, English literature, inside and out. Though he's letting the field lie fallow as he endures one of the gloomiest days of his demon-obsessed life, his erudition and wit never desert him; Butley never stops firing off the kind of incessant barrage of quips that Lane has long since proved he can utter with thrilling effortlessness. Not only does he deliver Gray's abundant supply of tongue-twisting lines with his usual furrowed brio, he also throws in a few nifty vaudeville turns, one of which is a lengthy telephone call in a hilarious Scottish accent. (Stephen Gabis, the dialect coach, has more success here than he did recently with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.)

Moreover, Lane executes any number of gripping sequences when fending off, by offending, intruders upon his charged physical and emotional space. Those demanding his volatile attention include his officemate and current roommate and lover, Joseph Keyston (Julian Ovenden); his estranged wife, Ann (Pamela Gray); his nervous colleague, Edna Shaft (Dana Ivey); a couple of perplexed students (Jessica Stone and Roderick Hill); and publishing executive Reg Nuttall (Darren Pettie), Butley's rival for Joey's affections.

Effective as Lane is, he doesn't go far enough. By this point in his award-strewn career, he's honed his on-stage prowess to such a fine finish that he sometimes risks being glib, and that is not what's needed to make Butley consistently riveting. He must be incandescent with discontent. To begin with, other than what's reported in the course of the play, little is revealed about Butley; therefore, the manner in which he's portrayed must prevent understandable requests for a more elaborate explanation of his highly agitated state of mind. Any interpretation of the character should imply inexplicable, chronic wrath. Also, it's a dismal couple of hours for the disgruntled teacher, as both his wife and lover announce they're leaving him. Consequently, Butley's articulate flailing can't be tempered; he must be monumentally mad, and Lane never quite gets there.

Under Martin's thoughtful and unflinching direction, the actors supporting Lane come through smartly enough to earn the high British encomium "well done." Ovenden is a likeable and understandable Joey; Ivey is firm and flustered as Edna Shaft; Pettie is suitably suave; and Stone adroitly plays a student with more on the ball than Butley gives her credit for. Incidentally, a special nod goes to lighting designer David Weiner for so devilishly rigging a couple of unpredictable desks lamps.

In the play's first stage direction, Gray describes the worn condition of a T. S. Eliot photograph that is displayed to reiterate Butley's particular area of expertise. Towards the play's conclusion, Butley collapses into a stuffed chair under this portrait, underlining the wasteland that Butley himself represents. As seen here, the image also unfortunately conjures the opportunity wasted to probe thoroughly the damaged heart and crushed soul of Gray's lacerating work.