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STAGE REVIEW

Master class

Nathan Lane makes professor's failings funny in superb `Butley'

People look at Alan Bates and want to fall in love. People look at Nathan Lane and want to laugh. So what is Lane doing in "Butley," the role that Bates defined in 1971?

How about improving it?

This will come as heresy to many who saw Bates in the original; I admit I only saw him in the movie. But Lane makes the world of British professor Ben Butley shimmer with a kind of personal failure that turns the Huntington Theatre Company's revival into an ensemble success.

Lane protested recently that he's not a sad clown in real life, but he certainly makes Butley into the saddest of funny men. You're likely to spend the first half of the play laughing along with his irreverence at life in general and university life in particular. And the second half wondering where it has all gotten him.

Playwright Simon Gray has seemingly set it up that way. It's easy to see why his plays aren't revived that often; as Huntington honcho Nicholas Martin has said, you need an actor of Lane's and Bates's charisma to pull it off. Butley becomes just an oddly unlikable, albeit entertaining, man-child if the actor doesn't have the ability to rivet your attention and, to an extent, win you over.

Lane does that from the beginning. He and Martin, who directed, obviously work well -- and play well -- together. Lane enters -- to much applause, of course -- switches on the light, looks around, and switches it off. It seems as if he's playing with the audience, as if to say, "Oh, stop," but the character is actually reacting to the ugliness of his office in a fictional college based on the University of London. After he arches his eyebrows and begins to speak, you'd be excused for thinking it was Max Bialystock returning to work after another failed opening in "The Producers."

It doesn't take long, though, for Lane to establish his British accent as well as Butley's more intellectually formidable personality, even if it takes Gray too long to turn the play into something larger than a smart British sitcom.

Butley is an English professor in love with three people -- T. S. Eliot, Beatrix Potter, and Ben Butley. The people who have loved him -- one of each gender -- are leaving him on the same day, both for other men. Life is a game for Butley. He who lands the most witty wounds on the other person wins, and for a while, we're rooting for Butley to triumph.

As the play progress, though, other things become apparent. In his love of Eliot, there is a sense that he may have once shared the poet's modernistic rebellion against the bourgeois conventions and pretensions of the day and may even have shared the elegance of his sensibility.

There is also the sense, though, that with each passing year in the cloistered, protected, and even Potter-like world of the university, that rebellion has been perverted. He now seeks out Prufrockian punching bags who reinforce his own sense of himself by their all-too-human failings.

Butley meets his match in the second act when the new mate of his lover, Joe Keyston, pays a visit to the office that Butley and Keyston share. Bates's son Benedick does a nice job in the thankless role of Butley's soon-to-be-ex mate.

It isn't until Jake Weber as Reg Nuttall, the rival for Keyston's affections, walks through the door that "Butley" takes off. Weber, the star of HBO's "The Mind of the Married Man," wears an elegant camel-hair coat, a mysterious smile, and a way of carrying himself that is utterly galvanic for this production.

Butley sees Nuttall as someone who is everything he isn't -- hence another punching bag.

The younger man works in a publishing house (Gray worked in both publishing and education) that specializes in potboilers, he dresses to the nines, he speaks with a touch of working-class earthiness, and he is hardly a match for Butley's intellect.

But as Weber plays him, he is hardly anyone's fool, either. The confrontation between the two forces both Butley and the audience to cast a different kind of eye on the life Butley has been leading. Weber is profoundly disconcerting, with a smile that Butley unwisely assumes stands for stupidity. In fact, Weber uses that smile and every other piece of body language to convey supreme self-confidence.

Nuttall may ultimately be Eliot's "Hollow Man," but Butley has long lost the ability to turn life into art. Butley's game is getting as old as the peeling paint on Alexander Dodge's smart set.

The look on Lane's face as he counts up the score at the end of the play redeems every bit of Martin's confidence in both the play and the actor.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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