Simon Gray’s “Butley” would seem at first analysis to be a perfect fit for Nathan Lane, one of our most endearing and gutsy dramatic actors. Gray’s 35-year-old play reveals the title character as a sarcastic, unpleasant, condescending homosexual professor in a British college. Playing the title role may not seem to be much of a reach for Lane, who has built a career around his command of characters who are defined by their snide bon mots and stinging repartee (“The Producers,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!”).
“Butley,” to be sure, is full of these. But as Lane also demonstrated in such worthy plays as “Dedication” and “Trumbo,” his formidable versatility is most admired in characters who are more than the printed word. Lane assuredly invests in the abrasive, unsympathetic Butley, just enough of a vulnerable underbelly to keep us marginally attentive if not caring. While Lane’s affectation of a British accent is appropriate and close to the mark, his characterization, however, is essentially marked by its irrepressibly comical aspects.
The problem with this play, however, is not necessarily Lane, despite one’s tendency to compare him unfairly to Alan Bates, the role’s originator. If one is to take issue with this revival, under the symptomatically unruly direction of Nicolas Martin, it is because it is glaringly dated, gratingly verbose, and an irritatingly redundant exercise in sexual identity in British academia circa 1971. Lane makes us laugh, and how can he not, given the number of smart-ass put-downs and the relentless, tiresomely cynical jabber to which he is committed in the course of one day — during which he is deserted by both his wife and his male lover.
The body of the play consists of watching the cripplingly insecure Butley methodically spiral into an inevitable depression made more so by his alcoholism, his inability to finish his book on T.S. Eliot or find fulfillment in teaching. Taking most of the brunt of Butley’s corrosive tongue are his estranged wife, Anne (Pamela Gray). who is seeking a divorce, and his younger, personally mentored academic lover, Joey (given a substantive demeanor by Julian Ovenden), who has presumably had enough.
Dana Ivey is excellent in the smallish role of Edna Shaft, a staid and formal professor of the old school, who gracefully tolerates Butley. The fine supporting characters have their say, but more defensively in the light of Butley’s assaults. Standout among them are Roderick Hill, as a student at whom Butley has made passes but now has second thoughts (“I’m too old to play with the likes of you”); Darren Pettie, as the new man in Joey’s life; and Jessica Stone, as an aggressive student. The office in a college of London University has been functionally designed by Alexander Dodge’s to withstand Lane’s considerable commandeering of it.
“Butley,” Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street. $76.25 to $96.25. 212-239-6200.
#h#The Times They Are A-Changin’#/h#
Twyla Tharp is an incomparable artist in the world of dance. Her choreography, most often identified by its wit and angular athleticism, reflects an authentically American esthetic. She brilliantly embraced the Billy Joel canon in the hugely successful “Movin’ Out.” In that exciting show about the Vietnam War era, one singer served as the propellant but was not an integral part of the dramatically danced narrative. In her recent creation, “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” Tharp takes a critical misstep by force feeding the songs of Bob Dylan into the mouths of three characters in a trite triangle. Dylan’s songs are destined to resist this misguided conceit at every turn, twist, and spin.
Despite using a circus milieu as a backdrop and a company of excellent dancers skilled in acrobatics, Tharp’s fertile imagination and creative juices have not come to the fore. These gifts, however notable, fail to address this piece’s achingly depressing plot or to provide motivation to the three uninteresting principal characters.
In brief, Capt. Ahrab (Thom Sesma), a tyrannical and brutish circus ringmaster, and Coyote (Michael Arden), his mistreated and spineless son, are both in love with Cleo (Lisa Brescia), a forlorn runaway. Their rivalry is revealed amidst the grim presence of a demoralized, physically abused circus troupe who quiver and quake in the presence of their sadistic boss.
These pathetic, oppressed characters eventually take the predictable path of rebellion, prompt the despot’s eviction, and welcome the ascension of his newly empowered son, with Cleo at his side.
The leads sing well, but the 26 songs, most of which reflect Dylan’s anti-establishment/anti-conservative sentiments, are egregiously trivialized in this context. Oddly and by right of its familiarity “Blowin’ in the Wind” uncannily validates its misuse even more than all the other songs. The dancers, particularly featured dancer John Selya, as a sorrowful clown, cannot be faulted for their efforts to invigorate the proceedings with their impressive leaps, jumps, and bounds, often upon trampolines. But none of the dancing elicits the kind of bravura response that one expects from a piece by Tharp.
Although the production is colorful, it is essentially designed by Santo Loquasto (setting) and Donald Holder (lighting) to affect an eerily nightmarish atmosphere. It brings to mind the surreal imagery of a Fellini film. One of the dancers even brings back memories of the pathetic street urchin played by Giuletta Massina in “La Strada.” Few memories, however, will be made of this. H
“The Times They Are A-Changin,’” through Sunday, November 19, Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47th Street. $31.25 to $111.25. 212-307-4100.
The key: HHHH Don’t miss; HHH You won’t feel cheated; HH Maybe you should have stayed home; H Don’t blame us.