Butley, Booth Theatre, New York

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It’s good to see Nathan Lane with a woman again, after so much on-stage cavorting – The Producers, The Odd Couple – with Matthew Broderick.

It is true that, as Professor Ben Butley, the title character in Simon Gray’s 1971 play in revival on Broadway, the female in question is his estranged wife. But Lane’s scene with that spouse, played with wonderful steeliness by Pamela Gray, is a highlight of Nicholas Martin’s entertaining, well-paced production. Enjoyable, too, are Lane’s scenes with the other woman in his life: Edna Shaft, his colleague at the University of London, a role that receives a sly reading from the tweed-clad Dana Ivey.

In the course of an academic day, Butley bitingly dispatches his wife, his male lover, his male lover’s new boyfriend and a flock of students importuning him for tutorials. Lane gives a high-spirited performance, with only one problem: I didn’t believe he was English.

And there is something unquenchably English about Butley, even though the beverage he uses to slake his own frequent thirst is Scotch. To achieve Englishness Lane pitches his voice even higher than its already rather elevated register, a technique that strips it of feeling. And an actor essaying Butley needs primary emotional colours: rage, regret, desire.

For audiences lapping up Lane’s characterisation, the issue of nationality is probably beside the point, as are any comparisons between Lane and the role’s progenitor, Alan Bates. And, to be fair, Lane may ripen with the Broadway run, as may the likeable Julian Ovenden, who, as the male lover Joey Keyston, has yet quite to convey the emotional tug between his crumbling devotion to Butley and his need for a younger, more contained man.

Bates invested Butley with so much dissolute sexuality that you understood why it would be difficult for Joey to leave. In his brilliant collaborations with the playwright Terrence McNally, Lane has shown that he knows how to put up more of a sexual fight. He could use a little of that spirit here.

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