Lane serves up an 'acid sugarplum'

Nathan Lane is headed to Broadway this winter to revive his Tony award-winning role as the conniving-but-lovable Max Bialystock in "The Producers."

But starting Friday night, Mr. Lane will make a stop in Boston to play a conniving-but-lovable college professor, whose wife and lover leave him on the same day, in "Butley" at the Huntington Theatre Company. The role of Ben Butley earned Alan Bates a Tony award 30 years ago, with one critic at the time calling the play "one of those acid-coated sugarplums that only come along every so often."

Bates said that he found the role more demanding than "Hamlet," and New York Times critic Clive Barnes called Bates's performance perhaps the single greatest he had ever seen on stage.

In fact, Nicholas Martin, the Huntington Theatre's artistic director, says he thinks the difficulty of the role is why "Butley" is seldom revived. "It's a remarkable play," says Mr. Martin, but over the years "no one has come forward who has the multifaceted personality that could interpret Butley."

Lane had seen "Butley" many years ago and remembers that "most of it went over my head." In 1985, the playwright, Simon Gray, gave Lane a signed copy of "Butley." Last spring, he met Benedict Bates, the son of Alan Bates, after Lane had made a guest appearance on Broadway in "The Play What I Wrote," directed by Kenneth Branagh. The two began talking about the play, agreeing that there'd be a certain "symmetry" if Lane played Butley and the younger Bates played Joey, a student who is the object of Butley's affection.

Recently Lane mad-libbed his way through a Boston press conference promoting "Butley," first declaring that he was there to announce his candidacy for governor. Asked if it would be difficult to convey such a multilayered character as Butley, Lane replied straight-faced: "We'll find all the layers. We'll memo you with each of the layers as we find them!"

Lane said he'll always be grateful to his oldest brother, Sam, who took him to a Broadway performance of "Butley" many years ago. "We saw a matinee, and he said, 'You know, he's going to do this again tonight,' " Lane says.

"And I was in a great deal of shock that he would have to go through all of those emotions again. I was amazed. Already, I was objecting to [doing] matinees." (When Lane developed vocal problems playing the strenuous role of Bialystock in "The Producers," he asked for matinees off, disappointing audiences.)

Might "Butley" find its own way to Broadway someday with Lane in the lead? "It wasn't about coming here [to Boston] to try the play out," Lane says. "I think the play works [already]. We just want to do the play. And if people love it enough that it just has to go to New York, we could talk about that. But that wasn't the ultimate goal."

Though Lane has had success on stage and in movies, especially teamed with Robin Williams in "The Birdcage" and as the voice of Timon in "The Lion King," his forays into TV sitcoms have flopped. "Encore! Encore!" blinked off quickly in 1998 and "Charlie Lawrence," in which Lane played a gay congressman, lasted just a few episodes last summer.

In 2000, he told USA Today: "I'm a stage actor, first and foremost. Onstage, you're in the driver's seat from beginning to end. You're making it happen, and each night it's different. In my mind, nothing else matches that."

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