Is That Nathan Lane Spewing Good Old-Fashioned Spleen?

The excellent revival of Simon Gray’s Butley at the Booth on Broadway proves particularly welcome because Mr. Gray’s hero isn’t nice. The British relish a bit of bitterness and intelligence, and Mr. Gray’s alcoholic, chain-smoking professor of English, Ben Butley, has a talent to abuse. He abuses everyone: his wife, his male lover, his students and fellow teachers—everyone who comes his bewildered, jaundiced way.

That the defeated, whiplash Butley is played by Nathan Lane—an actor who usually likes to be liked—only makes the performance more arresting. Mr. Lane has boldly put himself to the fire in the marathon role made famous by Alan Bates back in 1974, and if I have one or two doubts about his performance, it’s still the best he’s ever given.

Mr. Gray, the literate, dyspeptic British dramatist, author of such fine plays as Otherwise Engaged and The Common Pursuit, just might be the last politically incorrect man on Earth (along with his friend Harold Pinter). To see someone smoking onstage nowadays is to experience instant nostalgia. But a set design that displays a poster of T.S. Eliot must rank as a near-miracle.

Eliot signals a certain literary sophistication, and Butley—which takes place in a university office—is nothing if not articulate. Wordiness might be the only thing it’s got going for it, but it’s one big, energizing thing even so.

The self-destructive anti-hero who’s given up on life is the source of the play’s vitality. Rarely has a man been left by his wife and male lover on the same day. But Mr. Gray’s clever, serio-comic plot device proves enough to hang the play on. Spiraling his way into a drunken coma, Butley is at the center of every scene. He’s visited by everyone in his futile life, as if in a dream play. (John Osborne’s more furiously bilious Inadmissible Evidence, from 1964, has a similar plot and was a healthy influence.) In his fashion, Butley is a truth-teller, and he’s someone who can’t cope with life’s disappointment and its loveless, irredeemable mediocrity. His own first-rate mind is going to seed. Nothing works any more for this man, including the light switches on his desk. His spleen is so witty, however, that it makes his unpleasantness forgivable.

Nicholas Martin’s production, which comes to Broadway via the Huntington Theatre in Boston, is a superior one, with fine contributions from everyone in the ensemble, particularly Julian Ovenden’s restrained Joey, and the cameos of Pamela Gray and the delightful Jessica Stone. (For my taste, Dana Ivey gives too much of a crowd-pleasing turn as Butley’s flustered fellow teacher). But the evening stands or falls on Mr. Lane’s hunched shoulders.

His comic genius and timing are innate, of course, and almost unstoppable. Nathan Lane the performer has successfully reined himself in, though one occasionally senses the effort. He’s on best behavior, as it were, conveying bad behavior. His British accent (and various other accents, from North Country to Scots) is perfect. He’s battened down his broad comedy to suggest the unspecified wound and yearning within Butley, who “turned queer,” as the script puts it. But Mr. Lane is more sorrowfully hapless than consumed by wormy self-disgust and squalor. The star gives an admirable, affecting performance, but he can’t help milking it a bit at the curtain when he breaks down briefly in tears.

Butley ends up alone, all right. But big Brits don’t cry. Simon Gray is no sentimentalist. Butley doesn’t crave our sympathy and he doesn’t expect it. It’s enough that Mr. Gray originally ended the play with his damaged hero trying feebly to turn on his desk lamp three times.

Butley’s light has been snuffed out.

Trick or Treat

The quality I love most about the young and terrific American troupe with the French name, Les Freres Corbusier, is their weirdly original minds.

Les Freres cannot be anticipated. Their choices are always surprising. They’re so provocatively smart and fun that I, for one, don’t mind if they go wrong. Danger is an essential element of their risky balancing act—namely, the apparently impossible task of taking sacred cows seriously while simultaneously deconstructing them.

Les Freres are fair to unlikely people. ( A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, a life of L. Ron Hubbard performed by schoolchildren, is their signature piece.) Their latest, Hell House, directed by Alex Timbers at the adventurous St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, is a near-exact recreation of the fundamentalist fright nights first staged by Jerry Falwell in the 1970’s to scare nonbelievers with visions of hell. But far from offering a glib satire, Les Freres wrong-foots us at the outset by staging their guided multi-room tour of the apocalypse utterly without cynicism or irony. To the contrary, everything we see is horribly sincere.

Our guide is Satan—excellently played by a large (and unbilled) actor in a black hood beaming evil from a flushed face. The devil wears rouge. (And he looks exactly like Sir Peter Hall.) We follow him dutifully in groups through a haunted house of screaming ghosts and ghouls and ghastly sights in rooms that at first made me laugh uncomfortably. Hell House is part funhouse, and perhaps my discomfort goes back to when I was a little boy who paid sixpence to stare with nervous embarrassment at a bearded fat lady seated on a golden throne in a circus sideshow. But I couldn’t help noticing that her beard was coming unstuck. She stared back at me, and eventually broke her disdainful silence to ask in a squeaky voice, “What do you think you’re laughing at, sonny?”

I was at first similarly embarrassed by the apparently amateur scenes and parables on the short, 45-minute tour. We’re shown a cheerleader who’s raped, a bloody abortion, a gay wedding, an AIDS hospital tableau, a high-school massacre and more delights. Then a Dante-esque corridor leads us to Lucifer, whereupon a tubby angel in blinding light rescues us from damnation, and a vision of Jesus invites us to pray with Him. We exit into a church hop hosted by a nice and clean Christian rock group. There are little doughnuts to eat.

It made a change. But all is staged by Les Freres Corbusier unapologetically, while the depictions of bloody death and suffering are performed without a trace of Christian compassion. This is what happens if you don’t believe, goes the uncharitable evangelical message: You deserve to die.

Les Freres have invented only one scene—and it’s a brilliant choice. An unexpected sight in mid-tour—entitled “The Ironists”—depicts three Jon Stewart disciples planning to write a sketch sending up Christian fundamentalists. You can’t satirize a Hell House, but that isn’t the point. Irony, groans our flushed Satanic guide at the intrusion of these smug smart alecks, is “soooooo 20th-century.”

It’s also glib—too glib for the innovatory Les Freres Corbusier, anyway.