Nathan Lane is a great dramatic actor.
Did you need to reread what I wrote? Did I cause a moment of cognitive dissonance? This funny man, with puppy-dog eyes and droopy eyebrows, who can send an audience into gales of laughter with one double-take, is indeed a great dramatic actor.
One would think that I had just paid him the highest compliment. To excel in both comedy and drama is rare and, one would also think, a good thing. But it's a gift and a curse at the same time.
In Simon Gray's "Butley," now on Broadway, Lane plays the eponymous tragic-comic character with great insight and intelligence, so why was the theater half-empty after intermission. The problem, I think, is twofold: Gray's script, and the expectations we have of Lane.
The play is set in a London university office, inhabited by literature professors Ben Butley and his live-in lover, Joey. Ben is clearly not a happy man, and when Joey arrives, the air in the room crackles with tension. Their conversation is strained, Butley's repartee loaded with barbed witticisms designed to provoke Joey.
Joey, it seems, has been spending a bit too much time with Reg, a publisher who is interested in Joey's book -- and a whole lot more. When Anne, Ben's wife enters and announces her intentions of going through with their divorce (it's never clear whether she knows her husband is gay), she also drops a bombshell about her future plans.
With his life crumbling around him, and no emotional resources to shore him up, Ben relies on his acid wit to cut people down -- even the insecure professor, Edna, suffers collateral damage when she gets in his way.
The plot here is complicated, and only mildly interesting, but is saved by the intelligence of the writing as well as the fine acting, particularly that of Lane. Except that's not what the audience was expecting, and as a result, the laughter at the beginning of the play is not merely unexpected, but actually absurd.
Ben comes on stage first, and as he enters his office, he coughs -- the audience laughs; he turns the light on and off - the audience laughs; he sits at his desk, tosses a piece of crumbled paper into the wastebasket -- and the audience laughs again. Yet nothing funny has happened. There was nothing in Lane's physical movements and nothing in his facial expressions to warrant the laughter. But the audience laughed anyway, apparently assuming that since Lane was doing this, it must be funny.
This peculiar reaction to Lane makes me wonder: Will Nathan Lane's comic brilliance prevent him from ever again enjoying the satisfactions of dramatic acting?
And, while I'm at it, here's another issue to ponder: Do talky British plays have much of a future on Broadway? "The History Boys" and "Copenhagen" both won Best Play Tonys, and both had short runs; "Democracy" had a short run as well; and people have been seen nodding off during Shaw's "Heartbreak House."
I don't know the cause of our impatience with such plays but I'm inclined to think the invasion of the computer into our lives, and our multi-media environment play a substantial role. We seem to have lost the ability to sit and listen to people talk at length about all manner of controversial and philosophical issues unless they break into song or dance.
This is a distressing prospect for Broadway, for while "Butley" leaves much to be desired, the aforementioned plays were all outstanding yet their runs, compared to musicals, were woefully abbreviated. That said, if you want to see what Nathan Lane can do with a dramatic role, do see "Butley." He's really quite remarkable.
What the press had to say.....
BEN BRANTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES says ï¿½If you happen to be an American Anglophile looking for a night at the theater to confirm your belief that no one quips more elegantly than a witty Brit, then Nicholas Martinï¿½s production may well be the show for you. But if you were expecting a seamless, emotionally stirring marriage between a first-rate actor and a first-rate play, then ï¿½Butleyï¿½ disappoints."
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says "If you're not a Lane fan, on the fence or expecting a characterization that breaks the Lane mold, this probably won't make you a convert. He plays the part with several of the same tics, mannerisms and high-pitched voice - this time with an English accent - all too familiar from past roles. There's even the "claw fingers to the face in anguish" move we know so well."
CLIVE BARNES of THE NEW YORK POST says "Nathan Lane has had it - or rather Ben Butley, the eponymous anti-hero of Simon Gray's highly amusing "Butley," has had it. It's a tribute to Lane that by the end of the play, which opened last night at the Booth Theatre, actor and character appear totally fused. Which is just as well. For there's little more to "Butley" than Butley himself. The play simply runs in concentric circles around this oddly passive, peculiarly self-absorbed man - a character that tends to stick in the mind."
MICHAEL SOMMERS of Star-Ledger says "Lane provides a thoughtful, subdued interpretation that soft-pedals the man's bitterly comic edge in favor of pathos. His bleary, chain-smoking, bisexual Butley, however, scarcely manifests whatever personal magnetism seduced his wife and boyfriend in the first place. That's a crucial shortcoming, since some viewers won't find Butley too appealing either. More than anything, Lane's performance believably details the spiteful nature of a soul poisoned by self-disgust."
LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY says "Lane has been unable to leave behind the comic persona he has honed into such an identifiable commodity. Until the last stretch of Nicholas Martin's heavy-footed 2 1/2-hour production, the actor falls back on his stock delivery: jokey set-ups, snide asides and the trumpet voice that appears to operate on the same lever as his eyebrow-flippers. In the powerful final scenes, he does descend into self-dramatizing, self-destructive fury, followed by the abyss of self-knowledge. Until then, however, his shtick does little to make Gray's script feel more urgent than dated. Without the great charm and sexually charged dissipation of Alan Bates, who created the role, Butley's brilliant cruel motormouth virtuosity feels more like a device than a character flaw."
JACQUES LE SOURD of JOURNAL NEWS says "You'll have to pay attention to what is being said, and you'll have to give Lane time to build his character in layers of anger, pain and discouragement. This is a far more interesting Nathan Lane, first seen in Off-Broadway plays like "The Lisbon Traviata" and "The Film Society." This is Lane not as the class clown, but the sorrowful figure beneath. Yet he still makes you laugh, through his tears." & "For those who aren't looking for a laugh riot, it offers the rewards of a remarkable American actor, at the top of his form."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS says "Simon Gray's fine play, which was superbly revived Wednesday at Broadway's Booth Theatre, is the tragic tale of one man's emotional unraveling. And Lane rises to the play's dramatic heights in this exhausting role which has him on stage for the entire evening ï¿½ more than two hours. " & "Lane is a verbal wizard, but he also is a superb physical actor. He charts Butley's downward spiral right from the play's opening moments in the man's university office, a drab yet messy room he shares with Joey, his younger lover, played by Julian Ovenden. Watch Lane smoke a cigarette, try to eat a banana or throw his raincoat across the room. Every movement helps define the character."
DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY says "While Lane's range is well proven, it's his smart, sour humor that defines him. But his work here suggests "Butley" is shortchanged by an actor whose lead skill is being funny." & "Butley famously enters scene one with a lump of cotton wool stuck to a fresh shaving cut on his cheek. His inability to staunch the flow of blood as his life unravels should make the play as devastating as it is acerbically amusing. But in this disappointing production, the pathos surfaces too late to make the wound a deep one. "
External links to full reviews from newspapers