If you track the Broadway career of Nathan "Big Foot" Lane, you'll spot a trail of great strides in his high-risk, no-net game of Following the Leaders onto The Great White Way.
Last season, he filled the Tony-winning brogans that Walter Matthau wore in 1965 as Oscar Madison, the sloppy sportswriting half of The Odd Couple. This season, it's the Tony-winning loafers that Alan Bates wore in 1972 in the whole title role of Butley, an acerbic, alcoholic academician deserted by both spouse (female) and lover (male) on the same bad day. Iconic perfomances both - and, arguably, those two actors' finest hours.
Before the Neil Simon-to-Simon Gray gamut, Lane was skipping about incorrigibly in Zero Mostel's Tony-winning sandals from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, eventually skipping off with his first Tony for it (in 1996). Five years later, Tony No. 2 followed another classic Mostel portrayal - this one for the movies: mad Max Bialystock of The Producers.
The 1992 role that broke him into the Tony running was the one that provided Joe Lane with his stage name - Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, done pretty close to perfection by Sam Levene and Frank Sinatra previously. He even gave the ghost of Monty Woolley a good wheelchair run-for-the-money as Sheridan Whiteside, The Man Who Came to Dinner. Plainly, Lane knows no fear - or, if he does know fear, he gives it the coldest of shoulders.
Yes, he sighs, he's very aware of the bar-setting work of these originals, but, fool that he is, it doesn't stop him from rushing in anyway. "You have to let go of that. Otherwise, we couldn't ever do a play but once. We would only have one Hamlet, one Richard III."
In the 35 years since the premiere of Butley, there has never been a Broadway revival until now (opening Oct. 25 at the Booth Theatre). One reason is - well, Bates. The late actor's stinging, incisive depiction of a sardonic English don, on a tear of reckless self-destruction that has nothing on Hedda Gabler's, is still held up as one of the unassailably great performances of the 1970's.
Lane knows only too well. At age 16, he saw Bates at full tilt. "I was mesmerized by him," Lane remembers. "He was incredible in it, and, in many ways, it's what people remember. It sorta overshadows the play. The memory is Alan's performance, but I think the play really holds up. It's a terrific piece of writing. It's his story, but I think it works as a play as well. It's not just an interesting character study. It's a really good play."
Some of its subtleties escaped his teenage grasp and the accents threw him a bit, he recalls, but the performance remains indelible. "My older brother, Danny, took me to see it at a matinee, and afterwards he said to me, 'Well, you know, he has to do this again tonight.' I couldn't believe he'd have to go through all of that again, having just done it."
Now he believes - and, he says, it's every bit as hard as it looked 34 years ago. "It's a workout. When Butley comes onstage, he's on for the duration. He runs down the hall at one point, but otherwise he never leaves the stage. It takes stamina because it's draining, but it's exhilarating at the same time - even though it's someone spiraling out of control."
The burning desire to play Butley was sparked by that matinee and further fanned in 1986 by working Off-Broadway with Gray himself on The Common Pursuit (Lane was the fame-hungry television critic in that opus on Cambridge literati through the years). Gray encouraged the casting, and a Roundabout edition almost got off the ground in the nineties.
Its eventual (current) resurrection came about when director Nicholas Martin, a friend of Lane's, became artistic director of Boston's Huntington Theatre Company and offered the use of the hall if the actor wanted to work on anything there. They came up with three possibilities: A Moon for the Misbegotten, Cyrano de Bergerac and Butley. The last took the lead when Lane met Alan Bates's son, Benedick (then appearing on Broadway with his father in Fortune's Fool), and liked the symmetry of the son playing the lover to his Butley. Martin launched the revival three years ago this month, and it earned Lane his best notices ever - or at least his best since his voice-over of Snowbell the cat in the "Stuart Little" films.
Butley's dizzying descent into a hell of his own design gets giddy at times, given the abrasively bruising humor he uses on anyone close to (or, indeed, near) him. "In Boston, sometimes, I could really feel the audience turning on me," says Lane, who admits, withal, he still loves the character. "I don't know how you could play him otherwise. He's a difficult character, not a nice guy. He alienates a lot of people. What makes him interesting is his brilliance. If you could only harness his mind for good instead of evil…"
Somewhere in the second act, the barbs stop and the heartbeat begins. Butley finally hits rock bottom, and Lane slides slowly, almost soothingly, into a bottomless pool of blackness.
"I don't remember this so much from the play, but in the movie you sorta think, 'Well, this guy is going to be all right.' I didn't want to give that impression, and I talked to Simon about it. I said, 'After you've taken the audience on this journey, there has to be more emotion, I think. I think he has to crumble. His behavior has taken a toll. It's appropriate he falls apart a little at that point.' I think the audience has earned that."
Lane switches comic and tragic masks seamlessly - so fast you don't see it happening - but he bristles defensively when people write him off (and up, in The New York Times) as a sad (or mad) clown. Yet here is a role that rages from both sides. What Ben Brantley will make of Ben Butley remains to be seen, but Bruce Weber called Lane "Emmett Kelly on speed."
If the shoe fits, "Big Foot," wear it. Wear it with pride!