New York City Theater
The knives are out. In “Butley,” bitchy characters use cutting remarks to cauterize wounds. That they’re gay does not feed into some fundamentalist agenda. Rather, these are just people, though with one foot still in the nursery. Faced with love’s pain, they bait and humiliate, reaching out like spoiled children.
Simon Gray’s drama encompasses several lifetimes in its two hours upon the stage. If this production is not completely successful, it does demonstrate how funny vitriol can be, especially when delivered in British accents. Nathan Lane, in the bilious role made immortal by Alan Bates, has moments of true brilliance, emphasizing the character’s loneliness more than his despair.
What he lacks, however, is sexual tension, a peculiar fault in a play about a bisexual college professor with a male lover and a wife. On this day, both have walked out on him, the latter with their infant daughter in tow. Moreover, he’s cut himself while shaving (“It’s no pleasure slicing open my chin with my estranged wife’s razor blade”) so, throughout, has to attend to the blood leaking from his face as well as his heart.
In a series of sardonic confrontations, Butley deals with disintegrating relationships. His wife, for one, wants a divorce so she can marry one of Butley’s acquaintances whom he labels “the most boring man in London.” His ex-lover, Joey, has now taken up with a publisher from Leeds. Butley is dismissive of students, indifferent towards a fellow teacher and downright cruel to Reg, the new man in Joey’s life.
Lane flings the bon mots as he flings props across the room. The depths of his loneliness are so pervasive that you know his future will consist of opening tuna fish tins, reading T. S. Eliot and Beatrix Potter or staring off into space.
Yet we don’t really care all that much. Lane though a master of futility and frustration (ask anyone who saw his “Lisbon Traviata”) is not someone you instinctively pity or want to save from diving off a cliff.
The production is impeccable, the cast on target. Though not all it could be, “Butley” is a stark reminder that theater, in the hands of a language master, throbs with life.
-- David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 10, 2006