"Trouble for you, fun for me."
The word "fun" keeps popping up in Simon Gray's BUTLEY, but not in a good way. Ben Butley's idea of "fun" is rather like George W. Bush's idea of "democracy." Butley goes through the play abusing pretty much everyone he comes in contact with. The problem with the current revival of the play starring Nathan Lane is that the abuse comes through loud and clear, but there isn't much in the way of "fun."
The plot is pretty simple. Ben Butley (Nathan Lane) is having a bad day.His ex-student/roommate/colleague and probable boyfriend (the play is irritatingly vague on the exact extent of their sexual relationship) has found another man, and it isn't long before Butley's estranged wife shows up to announce that she's found someone else too. Butley's dazzling verbal assaults make it pretty clear why people are deserting him right and left. The only real questions are why they've stayed so long, and why they showed up in the first place.
And things go from bad to worse to worse still. Lane works very hard to show Ben Butley as a man teetering on the brink of an Abyss, about to descend into his Emotional Maelstrom, having his Dark Day Of The Soul. Butley's twice-repeated line that "our ends never know our beginnings" certainly doesn't apply to this production; Lane's Butley is a miserable wreck when he walks onstage, and he's a miserable wreck at play's end. To be fair, Lane delivers an occasionally exciting performance, showing us numerous shades of misery and anger and bitterness. He's never more effective than when he's being really really really nasty.
If there's anything missing, it is the excited wicked glee that animated Alan Bates' original performance of the role, which has been preserved in a very good film. Bates' Butley is, on some level, having the time of his life: he's never happier than when he's getting a rise out of someone, and his joy in being so naughty is infectious without ever obscuring the real pain the man is feeling. Bates' Butley is "fun" in a way that Lane's Butley never is, and Lane's performance suffers as a result. When they even go so far as to play the song Mad World ("I think it's kind of funny,I think it's kind of sad, that the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had.") to underline poor Butley's MISERY it is hard not to feel that they've just laid it on a bit too goddamn thick.