PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Butley — Grim and Bear It

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26 Oct 2006

Nathan Lane looks a little like a sad, lost panda peering down forlornly from the marquee of the Booth, where his Butley started holding withering court Oct. 25.

But hold the tea, hold the sympathy. As schoolteachers of England's relatively recent past, this character is kinda the anti-Christ to Hector, the overstuffed teddy-bear type who lorded (not without his own little peccadilloes) over The History Boys. As written by Simon Gray, directed by Nicholas Martin and played by Lane, Butley is an out-of-control grizzly out for bear. People come and go from his dingy college office, screaming, crying, snarling — and these aren't all students either. Loved ones are leveled as well. Especially loved ones. At the end of the day, even the last man standing has to sit down.

He arrives at work already bleeding, from a shaving nick, and proceeds to hemorrhage emotionally with every human encounter. His wife Anne (Pamela Gray) announces that she is leaving him, and then, with a slight apology for the bad timing, Joey (Julian Ovenden), with whom he shares his office and life, announces the same , throwing him over for a particularly nasty but successful publisher, Reg (Darren Pettie). No, no — that’s all right, demurs Ben Butley, appreciating the classical completeness of his catastrophe.

Butley's plummet to earth has an airy, almost giddy freefall quality to it, thanks to the wit Lane effortlessly whips about, slashing here, stinging there, generally merrily going to hell. By the time the actor gets to his curtain calls, the actor is wearing the pained, drained expression of the marquee art (sketched by The New Yorker artist, Riccardo Vecchio).

When he arrived at the opening night party at Cipriani 23, the expression hadn't changed much. "It's quite a journey," he sighed, looking like a veteran of recent foreign wars. Eight times a week? Sure, bring 'em on. "Absolutely! This is such thrilling material—a real gift for any actor."

And he plays well with the others in the sandpile. They answer his italic timing like a smoothly run machine. "They're all wonderful actors," he said, "and it's all been beautifully directed by Nicky Martin. We were fortunate to have them all."

The young, Oxford-trained Ovenden, making an assured Broadway debut, comes in for most of the swordplay wordplay as Butley's lover and chief sparring partner. "I don't really know what 'classically-trained' means anymore," he admitted, "but I kinda know what I'm doing, and it's lovely to be able to fire back at somebody who fires at you.

"Nathan is a proper actor. People think he does one thing — he's a song-and-dance man, a funny guy — but he's actually, I think, a very fine classical actor. For me, he has raised my game because he is always there 100 percent, always on the line in the moment. And it's so terrific to work with someone like that because you're never allowed to go off, you're never allowed to lose concentration. It makes it so thrilling because it's always different."

Benedick Bates, son of the late Alan, who won the Tony for Butley in 1973, played Joey when Lane did the play for Boston's Huntington Theatre Company a few years ago. As the company's artistic director, Martin provided the use of the hall and the direction.

"We sat, Nathan and I, at [Café] Une Deux Trois and discussed parts and plays we’d like to do together," said Martin, "and this is the one that I felt was the most exciting idea." [Finishing deux and trois: Cyrano de Bergerac and A Moon for the Misbegotten.]

"It has grown because Nathan has grown. He was wonderful in Boston, but now he is the part. He totally inhabits this role, and that's a great thing for a director to see — and to see the way he lifts a company of first-rate actors. He manages to set the barre even higher."

The most significant change in the production was the two leads, said Martin. "The relationship between them is solid now. They're fond of each personally, which helps."

Ovenden felt the Butley-Joey relationship didn’t work in the 1974 movie — primarily, a filmed record of Bates' great performance, directed by Harold Pinter for Ely Landau's American Film Theatre series. "In that movie, you don't get a sense of history in our relationship. I didn't really understand why they were together, why there was any kind of attraction. Joey [played on film by Richard O'Callaghan] seemed so timid. I wanted him to be strong so there's something to fight for. If he starts off meek and mild — what's the point? There has to be some kind of electricity and chemistry between two people. In a play like this, where it could be seen as a one-man show, I see it as a two-man show.

Then there's the little woman who leaves Butley for a more attentive man. Oddly, the marriage made at the Huntington is the only thing that survived, Lane and actress Gray being the only cast members to make the Broadway revival. "I really love playing this character, and I really love playing Nathan's wife," she was quick to confess. "He's a total pro — that's such an understatement to call him a pro. He's an extraordinary actor. It's such a pleasure to walk on stage and be with someone you trust so absolutely, someone who's never going to lead you astray, who's always going to be present, who's going to get something from you that you didn't know that you had and play the scene with you."

She has only one scene, but it's a roller-coaster ride. "It's not easy to get rejected every night. It starts to take its toll. It's emotionally challenging, but it's beautiful too because there's real love between these two people. I think that's how life is. There could be that much anger and that much angst, but there is also some real love going on between them."

Another Lane fan is a repeat co-star. Darren Pettie played the roadie who made a verbal pass at Lane in Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams, and now he is Lane's romantic rival for Ovenden. "You never even see Nathan with a script," he said. "We're off books as soon as we get into rehearsal. When you're doing a scene with him, he even makes you look good —pitching the ball back and forth. You never have to worry because he never misses —anything, never misses a line, never misses a beat. It helps you to relax."

Dana Ivey, a Broadway addition who dresses up the marquee and fortifies her scenes, plays Butley's colleague with an uncanny knack for blundering into his office at precisely the wrong moment ("Well, that's Simon Gray.") She arrived on stage with Instant Believability. "My mother was a teacher, and my father taught at Georgia Tech," she said. "I come from a family of professors, so this was not unfamiliar territory for me at all.

"I love the play's intelligence. Simon’s intelligent. He taught. And I love the truth that is in this setting and in the characters at that time. And I love the witty language — of course."

Gray counts himself an academician who has fallen into playwriting. "I taught for 25 years," he said heavily. "In fact, the original office when we did the play in London with Alan Bates was copied from my office." His years away from the teaching front, he suspected, had mellowed his perspective somewhat. "I don't know how I feel about Butley as a character now. He was written a long time ago. When I'm confronted with him, I sometimes find him quite bruising, and can't remember what made him that way."

He has been nursing the dream of Lane playing the colorful, booze-fueled crazy a good 20 years, ever since their paths crossed doing The Common Pursuit. "We did it a long time together — New Haven first, then Los Angeles, and finally New York — and we became, in the course of all that, quite close. We knew each other well by the time it came to do it."

As the tutorial student Butley gives such a hard time to (and she gives back), Jessica Stone knows who to thank for the role: "One day, during the run of The Odd Couple, Nathan came up to me and said, 'Would you care to play this student in Butley?' I'd seen it in Boston because Nicky is a dear, dear friend. I said, 'Maybe. Let me read it again.' And that was the beginning of it so I guess you could say Cecily Pigeon paved the way."

The role, she said, was tough and not so tough. "It's sorta fun to take the piss out of Nathan Lane on a nightly basis. I like that she's a smart, driven girl, and I like that you can’t really categorize this play easily. We have nights that are uproariously funny, and other nights where you can hear a pin drop. That makes it quite a challenge to play."

Stone's husband, Christopher Fitzgerald, was very much in her cheering section — and doing a little cheering on the side for himself. He said the spoofy little two-man, too-manic musical he did with Jeremy Shamos during the 2006 New York Musical Theatre Festival — Anthony King and Scott Brown's Gutenberg! The Musical — will open Thanksgiving week at the [59E59 Theaters], directed by Hell House's Alex Timbers.

Paxton Whitehead, who supported Fitzgerald and Stone in a radiant Martin-directed revival of Where's Charley? a few years back, was among the opening-night party partisans. He has taken time off since Broadway's Absurd Person Singular. Pity Butley didn't have a part for him. "My role's on the phone, the headmaster you don't see."

Tony-winning Bill Irwin was in attendance with his new Honey (i.e., Kathleen Early, who has taken over the role for the national tour) when Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? gets in gear after the first of the year at the Kennedy Center, starring Kathleen Turner.

Another who's repolishing his Tony-winning act was James Naughton, one of a zillion stars contributing to Chicago's 10th year on Broadway. His bosses — The Weisslers, Barry and Fran, took time off from the drawing boards to play at the Butley gala (and looked prosperous, like producers of the eighth-longest-running show on Broadway).

Liz McCann, the evening's lead producer, was allowing herself to be pushed around by her literary manager, Gaydon Phillips — in a wheelchair, which was positioned just inside the Booth lobby for her to greet the first-nighters. "She had a very bad fall at the end of June on holiday and tore the tendon off her knee. She was in a big cast for six weeks, but we got such poor after-care when we got back here. Then she's retorn the tear, and, on top of that, she fell down the stairs in the country and broke her ankle. It's all on the right leg."


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