The current Broadway Butley is a long-awaited transfer from Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, where it was revived in 2003 to much acclaim starring Nathan Lane. Nicholas Martin, the Huntington's insightful artistic director, once again directs, staging the play muscularly on a cramped office set (by Alexander Dodge), where the title character — a caustic, avidly bisexual English prof — spends his days and likely many nights. The juxtaposition of desks — one for Butley, one for his adored protégé, Joey (Julian Ovenden) — lets Martin block the play so your eyes rarely rest. This as Simon Gray's dialogue, studded with literary allusions and eloquent character revelations, keeps you thinking.
Yet Gray's play seems to have lost something since 1972, when it first ran on Broadway, earning Alan Bates a Tony. Whereas the central conceit — a drunken-sot professor losing his wife, Anne (Pamela Gray), and his lover-protégé in one day — was audacious for the early '70s, in a culture in which "bi-curious" men on the "down low" negligibly shock us, the idea now seems anachronistic; Butley's firm, arms-folded refusal to acknowledge his inner conflicts isn't eye-opening so much as simply human. That it comes at the expense of Butley's work at a fictional university where professors like Edna (Dana Ivey) might take 20 years to write a book — or that he might mistreat a dotty student (Jessica Stone) or a feathered-hat-wearing bumpkin (Roderick Hill) — seems only sad.
As the misspent, jaundiced, dislikable, yet somehow charming and embraceable force that is Ben Butley, Lane — forget his fleeting British accent — is wildly uneven. Consider his chemistry with Ovenden. Lane delivers Butley's wisecracks, each one constructed by the playwright like a verbal Versailles, expertly. But the fact that Martin lets Ovenden as Joey, along with the audience, laugh at those lines makes you question whether the laughter is at Butley or at Lane. In Anne's scene, she announces she's moving in with another man. In his hurt (and later in his cups), Butley's emotional tumultuousness is fashioned by the playwright into fabulously funny, cutting humor. Here Anne also laughs at Butley's wit, an impulse that initially seems realistic, even compassionate. Yet you sense that maybe Pamela Gray is laughing because Lane hasn't engaged her.
Only once does Lane unequivocally connect: when Butley confronts Reg (Darren Pettie), into whose home Joey is soon to move. Smug in the camelhair coat his character wears (the pitch-perfect costumes are by Ann Roth), Pettie seizes on Martin's pacing to force Lane to channel his character's acid, arch embitterment — and to spectacular effect. Here at last Butley's submerged pain mushrooms to the surface; the flash of physical violence that climaxes the scene is one of Butley's choicest moments.
Those of us unable to recall the ethos of 1972 — and thus unable to appreciate fully Butley's double-edged despair — hoped for a re-examination, maybe a reshaping, of such a devilishly complex character from the adjective-defying Lane. For amusement value alone, Lane is always worth seeing, but it would be worth so much more had he chosen not to skirt such an opportunity.
Presented by Elizabeth Ireland McCann, Stephanie P. McClelland, Chase Mishkin, Eric Falkenstein, Debra Black, Barbara Manocherian/Larry Hirschhorn, Barbara Freitag, Jeffrey Sine/Frederick Zollo, and Joey Parnes at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., NYC. Oct. 25-Jan. 14. Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com. Casting by Jay Binder/Jack Bowdan.