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.