Gone are the exaggerated eye rolls, the heaving sighs, the braying, frayed-at-the-seams voice. Save one sarcastic ”Heil Hitler” salute, there’s no sign of Max Bialystock. Nathan Lane’s performance in Simon Gray’s Butley is about 3,000 miles from his straight-up comic turn in The Producers; it’s a bitter, 180-proof libation, a British-accented blend of bile, cynicism, and bawdy jest.
Because Lane is more than Max and certainly more than The Lion King’s mouthy meerkat, he can handle Ben Butley — Machiavellian misanthrope, reluctant professor, and emotional sadist. And because Lane is Broadway’s most bankable star, he can get this 35-year-old tragicomedy about a bitchy bisexual T.S. Eliot scholar revived.
One wonders, then, why he couldn’t find first-rate costars: As his lover Joey, Ovenden has Hugh Grant dimples and heaps of charm, but precious little chemistry with Lane; as Joey’s lover Reg, Darren Pettie ought to be a vulture, not a declawed cat. Only the women — steely-gazed Pamela Gray (as Butley’s estranged wife), tightly wound Dana Ivey (a tweedy colleague) — are on Lane’s level. Still, it’s the scheming, scotch-soaked title character who never leaves the stage, so it’s Lane’s show to own. And from his first bleary stumble into Butley’s over-cluttered office (the superbly dingy set is by Alexander Dodge), that’s exactly what he does.